Coming here really helped me mature and really realize what I need to do in life, so Utah is always going to have a special place in my heart. —Kyle Kuzma
SALT LAKE CITY — Sleeping in Saturday morning would’ve been the logical thing for Kyle Kuzma to do.
How could you blame the 22-year-old NBA rookie?
The Los Angeles Lakers were fresh off a home loss to the Toronto Raptors and prepping for a back-to-back road game against the Utah Jazz.
But snoozing wasn’t in the former University of Utah star’s plans for the weekend. He sacrificed rest to hit the hot spots around his college stomping grounds.
First, he filled his belly up on Michigan hash — with a side of French toast — at The Park Cafe.
“I woke up early just to do that," Kuzma admitted. "That’s my favorite spot.”
Then, he hit up his favorite Utah barber, Arturo Ambrosio, for a crispy fade.
“My barber got me right,” Kuzma said. “I’ve been with my barber for like four years, so I trust him with my hair.”
Kyle Kuzma (0) tries to drive on Utah Jazz guard Joe Johnson. | Scott G Winterton,, Deseret News
The Lakers (2-4) would go on to lose to the Jazz 96-81 later that night, but the Flint, Michigan, native logged nine points on 4-for-10 shooting. He also finished with three boards and three dimes in 22 minutes of action with his college coach Larry Krystkowiak and former teammates in attendance at the newly renovated Vivint Arena.
Even in defeat, Kuzma refuses to forget the impact that The Beehive State has had on his life.
“Utah is a very special place for me. It helped me a lot,” Kuzma said. “Coming from Flint, I was really immature on the court and off the court.
“Coming here really helped me mature and really realize what I need to do in life, so Utah is always going to have a special place in my heart.”
His mother, Karri, feels the same way.
“Just going to college there, he grew up a lot,” said Karri, who works as an office manager at a dental practice in Davison, Michigan. “I mean, clearly, he still has a lot of maturing to do, but he’s done a lot.
“Just being on his own and getting around from place to place and dealing with college work as a student-athlete was the biggest thing because that’s a lot different than high school.”
Way before being drafted as the 27th pick, or earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors with the Utes, Kuzma was just a kid with a dream of reaching the NBA.
His first three years of high school were spent at Class C Burton Bentley High before transferring to Philadelphia’s Rise Academy, where he emerged as a four-star recruit out of nowhere. Kuzma then committed to Utah, where he redshirted his first year, and he improved drastically throughout his three-year stint.
University of Utah basketball player Kyle Kuzma at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Last season, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward averaged a team-best 16.4 points and 9.3 boards per game for the Utes as a junior, while receiving his bachelor's degree in sociology, before declaring for the NBA draft.
During the NBA Summer League, he helped the Lakers win a championship, then shined during preseason action with his celebrity status growing after each performance. In Los Angeles, he's simply known as "Kuz."
“I haven’t come across a guy who has displayed more of an impressive work ethic and authentic feeling of self-belief,” said Kuzma’s agent, Zach Kurtin. “He’s had both instilled in him since he was young. He’s relentless in his preparation, body and mind. Magic (Johnson, Rob (Pelinka, Lakers general manager), or Luke (Walton, Lakers head coach) won’t be kept up at night going through the ‘what-ifs’ when it comes to Kyle’s development. He’s going to squeeze every drop out of himself.”
Still, he makes time for his family and never forgets about his hometown. Sponsoring a local AAU team and launching a foundation are a few things he looks forward to doing to help the city in the future.
“As he furthers his career, he’ll be doing stuff to help people here,” Karri said.
Flint, Michigan, is notorious for crime and poverty, but has produced numerous sports figures such as Glen Rice, Claressa Shields, Mateen Cleaves, Jim Abbott, Morris Peterson, Chris Byrd, Charlie Bell, and fellow NBA players Monte Morris (Denver Nuggets) and JaVale McGee (Golden State Warriors).
But, for Kuzma, it’s home.
After winning the NBA Summer League Championship MVP, Kuzma signed a two-year Nike deal. The first thing he did was purchase a brand new 2018 Porsche Panamera, then rent a spacious, three-bedroom apartment near the Flint area for Karri and his younger siblings, Andre and Briana.
“He pretty much takes care of this and the bills,” Karri said, pointing around the 2,100-square-foot area. “All I have is pretty much my personal bills. He helps out. From that aspect, things are different.”
Andre and Briana also get noticed more around town. Andre loves to wear his brother’s No. 0 Lakers jersey to Grand Blanc High. The family is also showered with packages of random Nike sneakers on the regular.
“Kyle does the most for me, and the public status is a little different,” Andre said. “A lot of people know me. I’ve got a few fans.”
Through the first six games of his NBA career, Kuzma is averaging 13.7 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 50.7 percent from the field.
He holds the fourth-best scoring output and seventh-best rebounding average among this year’s rookie class. His popular teammate Lonzo Ball was drafted at No. 2 overall, and the two have formed a close bond as they look to rebuild the storied Lakers franchise.
Former University of Utah Basketball player and current Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) stands with his teammates during the National Anthem as the Utah Jazz and the LA Lakers play at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
“We’re like best friends on the team,” Ball said of Kuzma. “Our relationship is very close. It started in summer league and it is what it is today.”
Before Saturday’s game in Utah, Ball also received a haircut from Kuzma’s barber in Utah. Kuzma’s brother has even gotten close to Ball’s younger brother, LaMelo. They sometimes exchange text messages.
“I met LaVar (Ball), too,” Andre said. “He’s a pretty alright dude.”
Briana will never forget the first words that came out of LaVar’s mouth when he met their mother, Karri. Lonzo’s outgoing father, LaVar, has generated a bunch of publicity surrounding the Lakers but was humble to the Kuzma family during the introductory press conference.
“He hugged our mom, like ‘we’re going to have some stories about your son,’” Briana said.
Kuzma is enjoying life in La La Land as a member of the Lakers while soaking in the entire rookie experience. Golden State Warriors All-Star Draymond Green, a native of Saginaw, Michigan, has taken a mentorship role in his life, and so has his teammate Andrew Bogut, another former Ute star.
League veteran Vince Carter passed on some great wisdom to him as well during a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings. If he follows Carter’s advice of taking care of his body and stretching, the former Ute sees himself playing many years in the NBA.
“The NBA space has really helped,” Kuzma said. “Teams have to really respect my jumper and I’m a mismatch at the four so a lot of times I have slower guys on me and I can exploit that.
“I’m just comfortable all over the floor,” he added. “It’s been a pretty easy transition for the most part so far.”