We hang out and chill with each other so it’s pretty cool to come here and play with a guy you’ve known so far. —Donovan Mitchell speaking about Kyle Kuzma
LOS ANGELES — Nestled in premier seating of the Staples Center, Karri Kuzma flew all the way from Flint, Michigan, to watch her oldest son compete among the NBA’s brightest young talent.
Only 20 first- and second-year players were selected for the 2018 Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars Challenge, and Los Angeles Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma was one of them.
The former University of Utah product also joined forces with Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell on the U.S. Team roster.
“It’s amazing just see him walk out on the stage and play in this game this game that he’s worked so hard to get here for,” Karri said, while glancing at the court.
Notable celebrities such as comedian Kevin Hart, rapper J. Cole, retired legend Shaquille O’Neal and Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving were in attendance to witness Kuzma drain a deep triple to beat the first quarter buzzer.
Mitchell also drew cheers ahead of the dunk contest with a steal off a bad pass from Denver’s Jamal Murray, which led to an alley-oop jam to himself off the glass in transition at 7:30 in the opening quarter.
There wasn’t much to celebrate other than those plays, though, as the World Team would dominate the U.S. Team, 155-124 with Jaden Smith performing at halftime.
Kuzma caught fire near the end to post 20 points, seven rebounds and two assists while Mitchell finished with seven points, seven assists, five steals and two blocks in 23 minutes.
Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdanovic was named MVP for the World Team with 26 points, six assists and four rebounds.
Mitchell and Kuzma are both surprise standouts of this year’s sensational rookie class taken at No. 13 and No. 27 in the draft who continue to fight for respect in the league. As soon as the guys found out they would be teammates for the Rising Stars Challenge, they immediately contacted each other.
Mitchell may be the league’s top scoring rookie, but he had no problem deferring to the Lakers forward in his home arena. Every time he touched the ball, fans would cheer “KUUUUUUZ” in support.
“I said, ‘Look, bro, you can shoot every shot you want. It’s your city, your game, you got it,’” Mitchell recalls telling Kuzma. “He’s a great guy and he’s a talented scorer.
“He’s done so much for his team already,” he added. “He’s done so much as a rookie and he’s got so much to improve on, but it’s pretty cool every time he comes back to Utah. We hang out and chill with each other so it’s pretty cool to come here and play with a guy you’ve known so far.”
Kuzma’s sister, Briana, was also in attendance in Lakers gear along with other family and friends. Kuzma has been going from one scheduled event to the next and flew in late from Minnesota Thursday night after a 119-111 loss where he scored eight points in 19 minutes. He also has a pop-up appearance scheduled for Saturday afternoon by the Round Two Hollywood store, where his mom and sister will join him to promote his popular Kuzmania merchandise. They understand these are hectic times, but also exciting.
“We haven’t seen him yet,” Briana said, laughing.
For the season, Kuzma averages 15.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, third and fifth respectively among rookies.
“He’s electrifying and talented scorer with killer instinct,” Kuzma said of Mitchell.
Mitchell leads the pack with 19.6 points per game as the Jazz are in the midst of a league-best 11-game win streak. He also won Rookie of the Month for December and January.
When the Jazz first selected Mitchell, Kuzma was one of the first to give him tips for surviving in Salt Lake City. He suggested his go-to restaurants such as Park Café, Fleming’s and The Copper Onion, and the rest is history as Mitchell is now one of the most notable celebrities in the state playing on the league’s hottest team.
“It’s cool. When he got drafted to the Jazz, he was asking me about Utah tips,” Kuzma said of Mitchell. “We have a good relationship. We talk from time to time and congratulate each other after good games. He’s a good friend.”