At the conclusion of Monday's Los Angeles Lakers practice, the final session ahead of the team's four-game road trip to the East Coast, a local camera man got on the phone. Likely talking to his producer about the video he would be feeding back to the station, the camera man said, "We got Kyle Kuzma and Luke Walton, and I don't know who the first guy was."
That "first guy" was Lonzo Ball.
The "Lonzo Ball era" of the Los Angeles Lakers may require an addendum because right now, it is also the "Kyle Kuzma era" for the purple and gold. At the moment, both names come up in nearly every conversation involving the team.
Twins by NBA birth, Kuzma and "Zo" sit next to each other in the locker room, though that decision came from higher up. The age difference between Kuzma and Ball is two years, three months and three days, but their NBA lives began on the same day, so their experience from Las Vegas to training camp is a shared journey into the unknown.
Notably, the age difference between Ball and Brandon Ingram is a mere one month and 25 days and one extra locker at Staples Center, but Ingram's full season of experience makes him an elder in many ways. Slight as that separation may be, Kuzma and Ball sit on the same eye level and haven't looked back since hitting it off at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
Yin And Yang
The two rookies fit together. One is a guard. The other is a forward.
One is a naturally gifted passer leading the teams in assists, while the other is a naturally gifted scorer ranking second on the team despite only making two starts. One passes; the other scores. Undoubtedly, both belong on the NBA court, and both have the Lakers giddy with excitement. Something about Kuzma and Ball fits almost perfectly.
"I just think it's his character," Ball says when asked why he thinks he gets along with Kuzma so well. "Off the court, he's a great person. So, on the court, you know he's going to play hard. You put those two together and [get a] great teammate. Like I said, it started in Summer League and just picked up from there."
Ball expands on why Kuzma is easy to get along with, "He gets along with everybody, including the staff, as well. He's easy to coach. That's why all the coaches like him. He plays hard. That's why we all like him."
Walton echoed the same points about Kuzma almost verbatim a few nights earlier to such an extent that it almost seems like the Ball and Walton took turns reading a scene.
"His personality allows him to kind of fit in," Walton had said about Kuzma. "Vets really enjoy him. Young players get along great with him. He works so hard (that) all the coaches think very highly of him, so I think everyone just likes him and wants him to succeed. He plays really hard all the time. It's an easy way to earn the respect of everyone when you do that."
While both Ball and Kuzma have built strong fan bases inside the Lakers' facility and inside the locker room, they have a competitive relationship that goes beyond the required interaction. The two regularly play out a half court shooting competition after practices, and Tuesday offered rare footage of Kuzma and Ball playing one-on-one behind closed doors.
The trash talk is genuine and clearly nothing new. It's serious, yet friendly. Clearly, these two have a healthy, cocky competition ongoing, filled with talking junk and laughs.
"His answers are short, stout," Kuzma takes that friendly competition in front of cameras and microphones in the team's last public availability before jetting for the duo's first real NBA road trip. "I'm pretty sure you guys don't like his answers...Yea, they're ok, but they're boring."
While Kuzma is far from ebullient himself, the 22-year-old adds another friendly jab at his fellow rookie when assessing his own interview style, "More vibrant than his."
Competing with Ball on a daily basis, though, means striving for greatness. Team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson heralded Ball's arrival by playfully begging the rookie not to take all of his records. If those expectations seem unreasonable, Kuzma's self-imposed expectations appear to have the same goals of finding a home with the basketball gods on Mount Olympus.
"I don't really focus on rookies," Kuzma responds when asked if he compares his stats to his peers in the Class of 2017. "My focus is, one, winning. Two, I try and focus on the top players in the league because that's where I want to be. So, I don't think rookies are a stick point for me to battle with."
Kuzma adds with a matter of fact tone, "I look at guys like (Giannis) Antetokounmpo, LeBron (James) and those guys because, eventually, that's where I want to be."
The former University of Utah Ute is averaging 15.4 points per game, along with 6.3 rebounds per game, but those statistics are flawed, already. Kuzma started the season as a scorer with the second unit, so the forward only pulled down 10 rebounds once during his first eight games of the season. Since moving to the starting lineups, Kuzma has two double-doubles in two starts, as his role requires more attention to the defensive end and the defensive glass.
"We just try to hit you in waves and keep on coming and keep on pressing," Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. described the assault of having three power forwards the caliber of Julius Randle, Nance and Kuzma all available and playing regularly in terms that would make Rza from the Wu-Tang Clan proud.
Nance recently broke his hand and expects to miss a month, which is the reason Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup well ahead of schedule—and ahead of Randle. Now, Kuzma is playing with both the starting unit and the second unit, as the 22-year-old is becoming the first starter substituted off by Walton in order to have the rookie come back and play with the second unit at the start of the second and fourth quarters.
"Obviously, defense is probably where we're going to miss me the most," Nance put on his analyst cap when giving his post-surgery press conference in the hallway leading to the locker room at Staples Center.
Nance added thoughtfully, "If there's a position that we have super depth in, it's the power forward spot."
At this point, one should remind everyone that the rookie got the starting nod over Randle, who has effectively been transformed into an energy player off the bench. Considering Randle is a restricted free agent in the upcoming summer and the team has its sights publicly set on attracting two maximum salary-type players, the likelihood that Randle will still be on the Lakers in one year's time should be considered remote.
As such, trade rumors were due to blossom throughout the cold winter regardless of Kuzma's emergence, but Kuzma likely holding the starting spot for the upcoming month should begin that trade rumor buzz. While Luol Deng told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne that he'd like to be traded on Monday, the market for Deng and his eggregious salary has never existed. The market for Randle, though, does exist and should continue to grow over the next month of consistent minutes with a thinned out field at power forward.
The combination of Randle's contract, his energetic and improved play in a bench role that should appeal to a playoff team and Kuzma's emergence could force trade talk into a frenzy about the time Nance is due to return from injury in December. Since Kuzma is the guy Lakers president Earvin "Magic" Johnson drafted with Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, the kid from Johnson's home state is likely here to stay.
Before drafting Kuzma with the no. 27 pick in the draft, the Lakers only saw two workouts. The forward had one outstanding workout in Chicago, and his agent quickly shut down the prospect to likely keep interest high. Then, the Lakers got another look at the kid from Flint, Michigan at their facility, and that workout mirrored the performance at the Draft Combine in Chicago.
"The two workouts we saw were better than any film I saw on him," Walton said about Kuzma immediately after giving the rookie his first start. "We interviewed him in Chicago—loved him. He seemed like a tough, tough kid that had a good energy about him. We were looking for someone that could stretch the floor for us a little bit and put him in the development program and grow him slowly."
Walton added, "Obviously, he's been a lot better than, I think, any of us anticipated, but as a group, we were very excited when he was still there and we had our pick."
Ball's path to the Lakers may seem different from a spotlight and exposure stand point. Ultimately, though, the Lakers also only saw Ball work out twice before drafting him with the no. 2 overall pick: once at the Lakers' facility and once during the home visit to Chino Hills.
Through his first 10 games, Ball is shooting 30 percent from the field, 23 percent from the three-point line and 54 percent at the foul line. Without a doubt, Ball is starting his NBA career with an awful shooting record, but the former UCLA Bruin isn't regularly committing an abnormally high number of turnovers, nor is he failing to impact the game in a positive manner. Ball has three total turnovers over the past four games, and the Lakers have won three of those four contests with Ball having an aggregate plus-minus of plus-50 over those four games. Simply put: the Lakers are better with Ball on the court.
As a reminder, the lone loss was due to Damian Lillard hitting a deep last second three-pointer over the outstretched flag pole arms of Brandon Ingram. Though Ball was nationally scorned for only attempting two shots and being passive in that game in Portland, the rookie seemed content to serve the ball to Lopez and jump start the center's season. Ball was a team-high plus-10 in Portland, and Lopez scored 27 points, which has led to three straight games of the big man leading the team in scoring.
Outside of being able to read a game at a level beyond his years, Ball has been better than advertised on the defensive end of the floor. Ball's defense is an improvement at the position over the previous couple years. Related to that point, the Lakers rank seventh in the NBA in defensive rating after ranking dead last the previous two years and second from last the year before that. That improvement is not all due to Ball, obviously, but his strong defense has helped keep the rookie on the floor at least as much as his passing.
Offensively, the Lakers' style has been significantly impacted by Ball's passing "genius," to quote Walton on the day of the 2017 NBA Draft in June. The Lakers' intentions are to play stifling defense and immediately push the ball on the break. Through 10 games, the Lakers rank third in the NBA in pace and average about five more possessions per game than they did a season ago. Currently, the Lakers play at a faster pace than the Golden State Warriors.
Ball is a genius when it comes to making the early pass and finding the point man to set off a fast break, but his true talent is being a 20-year-old able to contribute to the game by controlling pace, rebounding, defense and setting up scoring opportunities to such an extent that the Lakers can still win against an in-form Memphis team despite the point guard missing seven of his eight three point attempts in the game.
In the win over the Grizzles, a brick-laying Ball craftily managed a net rating of plus-10 in 35 minutes on the court. The Lakers won by five.
Given his athleticism, Kuzma can often be the first man down the floor, and Ball's touchdown throwing ability proved to be deadly during the Summer League. Defenses have adjusted to take away the long ball, but the greater adjustment has come with Kuzma's shift to the starting lineup.
Lopez may be a 7-footer, but the center only averaged 5.4 rebounds during the 2016-17 season in Brooklyn. Lopez has dropped that average to 4.7 rebounds per game through the first 10 games of the 2017-18 season with the Lakers. Assuming Nance's role requires Kuzma to clean up the defensive glass and cover the shot challenging Lopez, which is best illustrated by the rookie power forward pulling 11 of his 12 rebounds off the defensive glass against the Memphis Grizzlies and all 13 of his rebounds off the defensive glass against Brooklyn in his first start.
Like Ball, Kuzma has already displayed an ability to adjust his game in order to have an impact in multiple facets of the game. That's impressive. Even more promising, the rookie forward is shooting 64 percent over the past four games and 47 percent from beyond the three-point line during that same stretch. What makes Kuzma different from Randle and Nance is the forward's shooting ability, which was on full display when Kuzma caught the eye of just about every fan, scout and analyst in the desert en route to being named NBA Summer League Final MVP.
While Summer League is a weird stop in between college and the NBA, both Kuzma and Ball are already showing they belong on the NBA court. Simply, both understand and know how to play the game.
For the Lakers, if 2017 is the start of the "Lonzo Ball era" at Staples Center, it may just as well be the start of the "Kyle Kuzma era" in LA, too. The pair arrived together, fits together and now looks set to stay together for the long haul.
The first multi-city road trip offers a bonding experience for any NBA rookie, and Wednesday's ice cold reception in Boston should be the first of many wintery trips to Beantown for the duo. For Ball and Kuzma, the bond should only grow with time and experience on the court and off it, but the foundation is built on the shared desire to be great and experiencing the work that goes into making that desire into a reality.
"I think it just starts off the floor," Kuzma gives his explanation of why he and Ball connect so naturally. "I feel like if you're close off the floor and you can relate off the floor, it's easier on the court because you can understand where people are coming from and the goals that we each have are pretty similar. So for me and him, we want to be great."
Kuzma adds, "On the court, it's like Yin-Yang pretty much. We have a vibe that goes together."