Kyle Kuzma has laid the foundation for a big summer with his best season yet

Kyle Kuzma has laid the foundation for a big summer originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON — When the going gets tough and the Wizards are losing games, Kyle Kuzma likes to remind himself that he and his fellow NBA players are “one-percenters.” It’s a self-aware reflection of the privilege he has as an NBA player; the God-given talents, the limelight, the money and all the resources that come with it.

As fortunate as many NBA players are, not many can relate to this particular moment in time for Kuzma. With free agency up ahead, he is operating through his daily life with inevitable generational wealth on the horizon. That’s because, regardless of how this season ends for the Wizards, he has already done his work to put himself in a very desirable position come the offseason.

Since the Wizards acquired him in a trade from the Lakers in 2021, he has proven to be an ascending player. He may have just begun his prime down the stretch of last season and, at 27 years old, may have many years of it left.

This season, his seventh in the NBA, Kuzma is averaging a career-high 22.1 points along with 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. Defensive analytics are also kind to him. He leads the Wizards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, which estimates individual impact, ranking 17th among all NBA players. He also holds opponents to 3.4% lower than their season average field goal percentage, second on the Wizards to Kristaps Porzingis.

Kuzma considers himself to be a late-bloomer, a trend he has followed through every step of his basketball life.

“I’m still getting better. I’ve gotten better every year I’ve been in the league. I’m 27 and I’m about to finish Year 6. Year 7, 8 and 9 are very promising for me,” Kuzma told NBC Sports Washington.

“I’m understanding angles. If you look at my past couple of weeks, I’m getting to the free throw line a lot more, trying to draw angles. It’s a lot of things, a lot of things you may not see right away. When I’m thinking about my career and improving, I’m doing things now that are going to impact my game in Year 7, 8 and 9.”

In many respects, Kuzma’s entire career has led him to this moment. He was overlooked as a high school recruit, then as an NBA prospect coming out of the University of Utah. He surprised early in his career with the Lakers as a late first-round pick, averaging 18.7 points per game in his second season.

Then, LeBron James showed up in L.A., drastically changing Kuzma’s basketball trajectory. He took a back seat offensively and had to produce in high-pressure moments. He adapted and helped the Lakers win a championship in 2020.

Kuzma says the arrival of James in 2019 made him grow up quickly.

“Just from being a professional and how I walk around every day, just how important I take my craft and my profession. A lot of that stems from just watching him,” Kuzma said.

Kuzma compares learning under James to having a “cheat code” for the rest of his NBA career, both on and off the court. He took lessons as a basketball player and leader by observing closely one of the greatest ever to lace them up.

During his first season playing with James in L.A., Kuzma lived just five minutes away from the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. He would try to beat James into the building in the morning, but more often than not would arrive and see James already there, eating breakfast or getting treatment.

“He probably never knew that [I was competing with him]. Or, he definitely probably knew. He’s a great people observer. He sees things and may not say anything. His competitiveness of trying to be his best self just made me better,” Kuzma said.

When Kuzma was traded to Washington, he felt it was time for new surroundings. He won a ring as a complementary piece with James and Anthony Davis, and with the Wizards would have an opportunity to take on a larger role. That adjustment took several months to begin the 2021-22 season, but he hit his stride in the second half as injuries to other players opened the door for him offensively.

Kuzma had been searching his entire career for true consistency as a scorer. He felt like he experienced a breakthrough around New Year’s, as he began regularly having games with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

“When you get to a point where you feel like every night you can do the same thing, you understand that and you understand what defenses are doing, it’s beautiful. It feels amazing as a player, it feels amazing,” he said.

Since Dec. 23 of 2021, across a span of 93 games, Kuzma has averaged 20.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game while shooting 45.3% from the field and 34.2% from three. Those are borderline All-Star numbers and in a sample size of more than a full regular season.

Kuzma’s production has remained stable over the past 15 months despite a changing rotation around him. Often he is the No. 3 option next to Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis, but sometimes he has to play the No. 2 option when one of them is out or even be the primary scorer when both are missing.

Kuzma admits that isn’t easy, but the fact he’s found success through those adjustments should help him maintain consistency, no matter what situation he finds himself in next year and throughout the rest of his career. The Wizards hope his next chapter will be played in Washington, as team president Tommy Sheppard made their intentions to re-sign him clear at the trade deadline.

The Wizards feel they have put themselves in a position to do just that. They have the financial flexibility to make him a substantial offer and have already proven to be a place he can grow as a basketball player. He also happens to be teammates with his childhood best friend Monte Morris and college teammate Delon Wright.

“[The NBA] is a beautiful place. We come in here and we just get to talk s—, work out and play basketball,” he said.

Kuzma says he has also enjoyed playing and living in Washington, D.C. The geographic location is a big positive for him.

Kuzma loves how he can fairly quickly fly home to see family in Michigan, to Miami where he has a house or even to Europe or the Caribbean for vacation.

“It’s central and it’s low-key and chill. I love where I live. People are not really bothering me too much. It’s an easy pace of life out here, it’s nice,” he said.

In just a few months the business side of the game will come to the forefront. Kuzma is due to make $13 million next season on a player option, which has long been a certainty to decline, as he is in line to earn much more on a new contract. 

In addition to the money, it is the best opportunity he has had so far in his NBA career to call his own shots as an unrestricted free agent. He says the thing he’s looking forward to most about this summer is the process itself.

“I have the opportunity to go through that process, go through team pitches and go through the backend of being a free agent and learning and getting to know different people. At the end of the day, in this league, people move all the time, whether that’s coaches, GMs, players, staffs, front office people. You may end up at a new place and you never know who you’re going to cross paths with. Everything is energy,” he said.

First things first. With 10 games left, the Wizards hope to end the season strong, ideally with a successful playoff push. After that, it’s going to be a big summer for Kyle Kuzma.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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