WASHINGTON — For a brief moment there on Saturday night, it seemed like Kyle Kuzma had done it once again. In a season full of clutch moments from the Wizards forward, he made yet another big shot, this one a go-ahead three to give Washington a two-point lead with just 3.3 seconds left on the clock.
This time, however, their opponent answered, as DeMar DeRozan beat two outstretched defenders for a buzzer-beater three from the corner. The Bulls had the final possession and that’s all they needed to hand the Wizards a loss on New Year’s Day.
“S— happens. DeMar told me to hold my beer,” Kuzma said, referencing a common meme.
Despite the loss, the performance of Kuzma stood out as it was another big game in a growing list of them for the 26-year-old. He had 29 points, 12 rebounds and two steals. It was his third straight game with 20 or more points.
This uptick in scoring, which has seen him shoot 57.4% from the field, has arrived amid a difficult time for the Wizards with more than half their roster in health and safety protocols. They played Saturday night without any of their regular point guards, instead having to start Bradley Beal at the one for the first time in his career and rely on Tremont Waters, who was signed to a hardship exemption contract the day before.
Kuzma is one of the last men standing in the Wizards’ frontcourt with Montrezl Harrell and Davis Bertans out. With Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant also still out, Kuzma had to play 40 minutes against the Bulls in what was essentially a 7-man rotation. Harrell’s absence required him to play some center and guard All-Star Nikola Vucevic.
The Wizards have needed Kuzma to step up and that’s what he’s done. He credits the recent scoring surge to simply doing what the team needs from him to given the circumstances.
“I think I’ve just flipped my mentality, looking for my shot more but also just getting to the rim and not settling. When guys are back at a full team, I’m kind of more of a spot-up, corner type of player because that’s just the dynamics of our team. Just looking for my shot, getting the rebound and going, just putting pressure on the rim at all times is what I’m trying to do,” he said.
Kuzma shot 12-for-18 from the field against Chicago. Of his 12 makes, 10 came in the paint and two were from long range. He had 20 points in the paint on a night the Wizards outdid the Bulls 72-30 in the category.
Kuzma has been playing downhill and driving into the paint, and good things are happening. But he also noted his role could revert back once some of his teammates return. He intends to watch film to find ways he can continue to be aggressive as the personnel changes.
Beal thinks Kuzma can stay aggressive in a few different ways. One is starting the fastbreak off defensive rebounds. He also thinks Kuzma can utilize mismatches; his size against smaller guards and his speed against slower big men.
“I love his confidence. I mean, Kuz is confident as-is, but once he’s going it takes him to a new level,” Beal said. “I don’t even think he realizes the type of player he can be. I think he’s still growing and there’s another level he can tap into.”
Kuzma addressed the media while wearing bright red leather pants and a sweater that was mostly red and green, with polka dots on the left sleeve and black roses stitched on. It was just the latest installment of his unique gameday fashion, which this season has veered between interesting and completely out-there.
Despite his quirky fashion sense, Kuzma feels that Wizards fans have accepted him for who he is in the brief time he’s been here since coming over in an offseason trade with the Lakers.
“D.C. fans have been great to me ever since I got here. It’s me coming in just trying to play as hard as possible. I think fans have gravitated to that and I really appreciate it especially coming here. I’m a very polarizing person. You either love me or hate me and I’m just glad that coming here and having the opportunity to have a fresh slate and the fans have really accepted me. I really appreciate it, honestly,” he said.
Surely, he would have preferred to wear that after a win, but perhaps his performance is something he can build on.