Bill Bertka has seen just about everything in his 90 years: the beginnings of the Showtime era Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, Kobe Bryant’s legendary pre-draft workouts that convinced then-GM Jerry West he was looking at a future star, the best coaching moments of icons like Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
So when Bertka burst into the Lakers’ scouting meetings this spring, raving about some kid from Utah he’d scouted during the Pac-12 Conference tournament, everyone in the room took note.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss recalls. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.’ “
The guy who’d turned Bertka’s head was Kyle Kuzma, a lanky forward with a sweet jump shot and old-school post moves who most mock drafts projected as a late second-round pick.
At the time, the room was still debating the merits of the star freshmen at the top of the draft — Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum — who had the talent to become superstars and change the course of the franchise if the Lakers ended up keeping their top-3 protected pick.
Most analysts regarded Kuzma as a solid all-around player with the potential to be a stretch-4 in the NBA game, but 21-year-olds don’t get much credit for potential in the one-and-done era. And 21-year-olds who shoot 31.2 percent from beyond the arc in their junior year of college might as well pack their bags for the G League.
But when Bertka spoke that way about a player, it was best to pay attention. Kuzma might not have had the hype the Lakers’ eventual lottery pick, Lonzo Ball, did. He certainly didn’t have anyone promoting him like Lonzo’s outspoken father, LaVar Ball. But Kuzma had a versatility to his game that’s hard to find in players his size (6-foot-9). If he was still available at the end of the first round when they had picks 27 and 28, they’d consider him.
“When Magic [Johnson] and I drew up the architecture for how we wanted this team to be built, we knew that positionless, versatile players would be at the core of that,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said. “And when we started drilling down and studying Kyle, we knew he’d fit that mold.”
Said Buss: “What stood out for me was his ability to switch between multiple positions and guard them as well. His offensive skill set didn’t really have many holes minus the consistency on his perimeter shooting. But he started to shoot it better once he got to conference play, and it carried into his workout with us.
“I loved his activity and his motor. He never really took plays off, and he didn’t really lose himself after making a mistake.”
Kyle Kuzma goes to the spin move and finishes with a scoop shot in the lane.
Buss says the Lakers had been watching Kuzma directly or indirectly since his freshman year when they were scouting former University of Utah center Jakob Poeltl (now with the Toronto Raptors). And because they’d seen him over a number of years, they could see the improvement in his game from year to year. It suggested a player who was still growing his skill set and maybe why he’d been such a late-bloomer on the prep and AAU circuit.
“In high school, AAU, even prep school, I didn’t really know how to play basketball,” Kuzma says. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s throw the balls out, go get buckets, just score and go play.’ Once I got to college, I didn’t know defensive rotations, my footwork was sloppy. I used to travel every other play.”
He was talented but raw. The proverbial diamond in the rough, or in this case, diamond from the rough streets of Flint, Michigan. He speaks openly of the violence and poverty he experienced growing up. His mother Karri described in heartbreaking detail how the water crisis in Flint caused her to break out in rashes, lose hair and feel sick.
But what Kuzma did have was an unrelenting work ethic and a coach, Earl Jordan, who was willing to put in the time.
“I got Kyle when he was a sophomore,” Jordan says. “He was about 6-4 then. Skinny kid. And he could shoot the ball. His dribbling needed work, but he had a good idea of what he needed to do.
“So I talked to his mom and said, ‘Look, let me work with him. I can help him. Bring him over here and I can help him.’ “
Jordan has been working with young basketball players in Flint for four decades. Every year he runs a free camp that’s attended by nearly 400 local kids ages 13-17. This year will be the 25th anniversary of his camp. Name a basketball player from Flint (they call themselves Flintstones) — Charlie Bell, Mateen Cleaves, Robaire Smith, “Sweet” Lou Dunbar of the Harlem Globetrotters, Carl Banks — and chances are coach Jordan has worked with them.
At age 67, and retired from a 35-year career with General Motors, coaching is Jordan’s only focus now. All he asks in return for the time he puts in training is that the players come back to Flint and talk to the local kids.
But just because Jordan didn’t charge anything for the workouts he put Kuzma through, it doesn’t mean they were easy.
“We worked every day, all summer on the same moves,” Kuzma says. “Post moves. The same post moves every day, all day. It got kind of boring at times.”
Kuzma laughs at that part, knowing Jordan probably will hear or read that he called that intense work on his post moves boring. But also because those old-school post moves have become something of a hallmark of Kuzma’s breakout success as a rookie.
Kyle Kuzma puts a great spin move on his defender to score the basket.
Kuzma is second among all rookies in scoring, fourth in rebounding and starting alongside Lonzo Ball in a lineup that the Lakers hope becomes the beginning of a basketball renaissance after four straight seasons in the lottery.
But whereas Ball is known for his passing, vision and ability to handle the enormous expectations on him as the No. 2 overall pick and LaVar Ball’s spoken-into-existence-superstardom, Kuzma has exceeded any expectations the Lakers or anyone had for him as a rookie. The 27th pick in the draft already has four double-doubles in his first 14 games, and recently told Lakers.com that he thinks he would be a top-5 pick if last summer’s draft were redone.
He’s shooting 31.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, the same as his junior year at Utah. But his form is so much more consistent that the Lakers trust and encourage him to shoot it from deep whenever he’s open.
“After college, I really looked at every single shot that I shot. Pretty much every shot in my sophomore year and my junior year and just watched my form,” he says. “I watched how I shot it from 3, and I just noticed I was a very undisciplined shooter.
“Form, balance. You’re supposed to shoot the same way every time, and I didn’t. So once I left school, I just really dialed in on perfecting my balance, perfecting shooting the ball up, keeping my hand up, and really just trying to lock in on that.”
As impressive as that improvement has been, it’s Kuzma’s old-school post moves, the ones Jordan taught him during those long boring sessions at Bentley High in Flint, that make his game stand out.
He has a running hook shot, an up-and-under, a jump hook and all sorts of finishes with both hands that would make Jordan — or Kevin McHale — proud. Kuzma claims to have a skyhook, a la Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, too, but hasn’t used those moves in the game yet.
“I might just have to bust that out at a home game,” Kuzma says, winking, knowing how the Staples Center crowd would react to an homage to one of the franchise’s legends.
Kyle Kuzma pumps up the crowd with impressive back-to-back buckets in the third quarter of the Lakers’ first preseason game.
Back in Flint, Jordan is beaming at how Kuzma’s blending old-school and new-school basketball.
“That’s the thing I kind of miss about the NBA, is you just don’t see the old school big men anymore,” Jordan says. “It’s a lost art.”
Somehow Kuzma has all of what his old-school coach taught him, and the ability to play the up-tempo, pace-and-space game the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have wrought upon the modern NBA.
He also has a locker right next to Ball, the Lakers’ far more famous rookie, who took a much, shall we say, “louder” path to the same place.
Who could’ve foreseen it? Who spoke it into existence the way LaVar Ball did for Lonzo? That would be Kuzma.
“You know how you’re in elementary school and the teacher goes around the room and like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ” Kuzma says. “I said ‘NBA player.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, OK. Maybe pick a real job.’
“But I really believed it. I felt like I was meant to be here. I play with a chip on my shoulder, but it’s not so much, I’m a show you, it’s like I always knew I was going to be here.”