Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma continues to build off of impressive summer

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Lonzo Ball said he doesn't remember much about Kyle Kuzma in college.

"In college, he wasn't that good, to be honest," Ball said dryly about one of his closest friends on the Los Angeles Lakers. "I don't even remember when we played him. But now I am happy he is on my team."

Ball likely was busting on his teammate, whom he has become close with after forming an impressive chemistry with him this summer. Kuzma, though, certainly thinks Ball remembers him from when they faced each other in college when Ball's UCLA Bruins edged Kuzma's Utah Utes 83-82 in January in Utah.

"I almost gave UCLA a triple-double that game, so I don't know about that," said Kuzma, who had 15 points, 11 rebounds and six assists and missed a contested 3 at the end of that loss.

All joking aside, Kuzma has not only left an impression on Ball, but the Lakers, as well. The 6-foot-9 forward has looked like a potential steal in the draft for the Lakers, who picked him 27th overall with the first-rounder they acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in the D'Angelo Russell-Brook Lopez deal.

While Ball garnered all the attention and won MVP honors at Las Vegas Summer League, Kuzma was a major surprise, as he averaged 21.9 points. 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals and shot 48 percent from 3-point range. He quickly formed quite the tandem with Ball, who fired three-quarter-length passes downcourt often to a sprinting Kuzma for layups and dunks.

But that was summer league. How would Kuzma and Ball do against NBA talent in the preseason? With all eyes on Ball on Saturday night against Minnesota, the point guard missed 7 of 9 shots but had five points, eight assists and seven rebounds and still impressed with his passing.

Kuzma, though, picked up right where he left off in Vegas, scoring a team-high 19 points to go with five rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.

"He's gonna be a very good player," said veteran center Andrew Bogut, who played at Utah before Kuzma did and knew of the young forward. "I don't think people realize. He had a really good game. He'll have his ups and downs.

"His body is almost NBA-ready. Very long, very smart. Can finish with both hands. And he shoots the ball at a decent clip from 3. I think he's going to be one of the steals of the draft."

Fans at the Honda Center roared, "Kuuuuz" whenever Kuzma shot. None of this seemed to surprise Lakers head coach Luke Walton.

"I was more surprised in summer league," Walton said when asked about Kuzma's performance this summer and in the preseason thus far. "I have been around him long enough now that I am a believer in him. It's not just hot shooting and whatnot. He is a competitor, and he finds ways to get it done. Now, I don't think what he was doing [in the preseason opener] is what we are trying to count on every night. He made some spectacular plays.

"But just the way he competes; he has a great feel for the game as far as when to cut. Like, he had a bunch of plays where he cut and did get the ball, but he made the whole defense collapse, and [Ivica Zubac] got a nice dunk on one of them, and I think Tyler [Ennis] got a jump shot on one of them. He has a good feel for playing the game and a knack for making plays."

Kuzma provides the Lakers with a reserve who can shoot the 3, get inside and rebound and move well without the ball. That is where he might make more plays this season. His ability to run the floor and catch passes from Ball and finish was on full display in summer league.

"Kuz has always been here, always working hard," Ball said. "Me and him have a good chemistry, but, you know, we started building that in Las Vegas. Now it's an all-time high."

Kuzma was an All-Pac-12 first-team selection after averaging 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds his junior year at Utah. He always thought he would be a first-round draft pick, and he knew the Lakers were very interested after the combine.

"Yeah, for sure, that is why I left [Utah]," Kuzma said of his belief that he would go in the first round. "Before I left, [some draft analysts] had me pegged as second-round, undrafted type of guy, and I didn't believe that. I am a really confident person, and I believe in myself and always thought I would be a first-rounder because of my talent level."

Kuzma is starting to show what he can do and perhaps force his way into Walton's rotation. With Lopez missing the preseason opener, Kuzma was a part of a second unit that included Ennis, Jordan Clarkson, Corey Brewer and Zubac. Veteran Luol Deng was also out Saturday.

"Just confident," Kuzma said of why he has shined so far in the pros, more than he did at Utah. "In college, I wasn't able to do a lot of those things because of our system and coach, because of how he coached and structured it. But I'm playing carefree, so ...

"The movement of the [Lakers] offense and the way Luke coaches allows us to do a lot of free things and freelance."