SALT LAKE CITY — Kyle Kuzma was alone at the fringe of the room, looking uncomfortable.
“Do you want to talk to Kyle?” a hopeful sports information officer asked me.
Kuzma was representing the Utes at the 2015 Pac-12 media day. His turn on the podium wouldn’t arrive for half an hour and, having greeted players from several other teams, he had nothing to do but wait.
“I guess so,” I said.
I didn’t need an interview, at the moment, but I was feeling a little sorry for him.
Good luck catching him alone nowadays. Magic Johnson is in the audience calling “Koooozzzz!” along with the crowd at the Laker games. James Worthy, another ex-Laker, tells USA Today that Kuzma has “that feel” of a Klay Thompson: lockdown defender potential, quickness, size, length, range. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is saying he loves Kuzma’s attitude.
Tuesday he made his second visit to Vivint Arena, a secret no more. His reach goes far beyond Salt Lake. He trolls teammate Lonzo Ball in social media “wars” and gets tens of thousands of likes. Before the trade deadline, he entertains reporters by telling them “ there’s rumors of (Ball) getting traded for like a bag of peanuts or something. So that would be a good trade.”
Sounds like a man supremely sure of himself.
A man who wears skinny jeans and fur coats because he can.
“It’s been great, a little more so being in L.A. than somewhere, like a small market, so I love it,” Kuzma said. “I don’t take it for granted.”
At the same time, Kuzma hasn’t entirely gone Hollywood. He arrived Tuesday in a sweatshirt that, coincidentally, matched the Jazz’s orange “City” uniforms. But his backpack was pure indulgence — leather with decorative studs.
“He’s opening up and having a great deal of fun,” Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said on Monday.
But it's not all laughs.
“He enjoys a lot of it,” Lakers coach Luke Walton qualified. “Some moments he has not enjoyed, but that’s because he’s a great competitor, so it’s tough to enjoy if you’re not having a good night, or if you’re not seeing eye-to-eye with what we’re asking him to do. But overall he’s really embraced his rookie season and taken advantage of all the opportunities he’s had so far, and done a great job with it.”
And he's done a great job of being entertaining. Video this week caught him warning Sacramento’s Buddy Hield that if Justin Jackson guarded him, bad things would happen.
“He can’t guard me down there,” Kuzma said. “If he’s guarding me, it’s barbecued chicken.”
Krystkowiak points out that late in the season, with non-playoff teams such as Sacramento and L.A., “you try to get through it, so you find a little bit more comedy.”
He was no laughing matter at Utah, but far from a media star when drafted No. 27. Count his college coach among many who didn’t foresee his rapid rise.
“No,” Krystkowiak said. “But I’ll tell you one thing: Kyle, without a doubt, more than anybody I’ve been around, each year makes significant strides.”
It isn’t that certain players are better suited for the NBA as much as they keep improving, according to Krystkowiak. Kuzma had good but not sensational college stats, averaging 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds as a junior. As a Laker he averages 16.7 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“So many players define themselves when they reach a level of success and get stuck in that mold,” Krystkowiak said. “But a small percentage of players aren’t satisfied where they are and they keep working. That has defined Kyle more than anything. In the four years I’ve been around him, I’ve watched it happen, and I wouldn’t expect it to end.”
Kuzma made his first four shots Tuesday, each time drawing a fairly loud “Koooozzzz!” chorus from Ute and Laker fans. He finished with 26 points.
“I thought it was cool to come back here. I pretty much grew up here, maturity-wise,” Kuzma said. “This has a place in my heart, so it’s special to be here and kind of stir memories.”
Krystkowiak calls him “the Golden State Warriors type of versatile player, who can pass, shoot, make plays and defend multiple positions.”
He is physical enough, versatile enough and confident enough to be on virtually every Rookie of the Year ranking.
“He seems to be soaking it up,” Krystkowiak said.
Nowadays Kuzma has no problem attracting a crowd.