General manager Rob Pelinka and the Los Angeles Lakers front office might have believed Kyle Kuzma would be special when they targeted him in the 2018 NBA Draft, but even they probably didn’t think he’d be as good as he has been so quickly.
Kuzma has blown away even the wildest expectations during his rookie campaign, leading the Lakers in scoring with 16.2 points per game while shooting 36.9 percent from 3-point range.
The Utah product has been rewarded for his efforts with a spot in the Rising Stars Challenge, something head coach Luke Walton thinks is a good sign for the team’s “bright future.”
During an interview with Kevin Ding of Lakers.com, Pelinka went even further than that, singling out Kuzma as a huge part of the Lakers’ future:
And when it comes to Kuzma, drafted with that No. 27 pick from Brooklyn and now referred to by Pelinka as “a cornerstone for the future,” Pelinka deflects credit.
“We had identified Kyle Kuzma early in the draft process: Jesse Buss and his scouts, Magic, and I were all aligned,” Pelinka said. “We felt so strongly about him that we knew that Brooklyn Nets trade would increase our mathematical probability of getting him, because we would have a higher pick and we’d have two [picks]. When we were able to call his name on draft night, knowing that was a target, it definitely felt gratifying.”
It’s clear that the team is bullish on Kuzma, but these comments from Pelinka are notable for a few reasons. For one, this is the strongest language yet that the Lakers have used while referring to Kuzma, confirming they don’t see his early play as a fluke and are very much penciling him in as part of their young core alongside No. 2 picks Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram.
Pelinka also makes it clear with these comments that getting Kuzma was at least in part a motivation for the Russell trade, and that the extra pick wasn’t just an issue of balancing the scales. The Lakers had Kuzma in mind for that range and wanted to make sure they got him, even if it meant moving up just two picks.
Securing Kuzma there allowed the Lakers to trade back from their later pick and bring in promising young prospects Thomas Bryant and Josh Hart, the latter of whom has worked his way into a consistent role in the rotation while the former dominates in the G League.
Trumpeting Kuzma as part of the Russell trade haul is slightly disingenuous in that the Lakers probably still could have got him with that 29th pick, but at the very least the move allowed the team to swipe all three of those promising young prospects to grow together, which will surely boost the team’s rebuilding efforts.
It’s also crystal clear now that doing so was not a happy accident, and that the Lakers very much had their eyes on Kuzma when they made the deal. If Kuzma ends up being the ‘cornerstone’ Pelinka and many others in the organization believe he can be, then the Russell trade will be a footnote in the team’s history when Kuzma ascends to the heights they hope he will.
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