Every season the NBA ushers in fresh new faces. The draft, and free agency is an integral piece in the business of basketball. As we approach the halfway mark, four rookies have been consistent with their efficiency, numbers and overall contributions to the team: Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Kyle Kuzma have emerged as the leaders of the new school.
Last week I wrote about how dedicated you have to be to interview and build a rapport with teams and athletes over the years. Being based in Philadelphia is extremely helpful when it comes to connecting with this year’s top rookies, because I interact with Ben Simmons regularly and the 76ers play the Celtics multiple times a year. I was also front and center when the Jazz, and Lakers were in town, so the opportunities to cover the people that everyone is talking about, is something I don’t take lightly.
When it comes to Kyle Kuzma, the first thing I have to say is that he and I know some of the same people, including the Utah Jazz beat writer Eric Woodyard, who told me at the beginning of the season to make sure I interview both Kuzma and Mitchell at some point. The basketball community is small and it can be very helpful in this regard.
I spoke with Kuzma on two different occasions, and he is just as bright, and resilient off the court as he is when it’s game time. We talked about everything from his hometown of Flint, MI to his love of sneakers.
You talk about your mother a lot, can you shed some light on what she has meant to your life?
She meant a lot, she worked many jobs to put food on the table and a roof over our head. She instilled a great work ethic in me and I feel that it has translated to the basketball court. I’ve seen how hard she worked to do for us.
Where did your work ethic come from?
Being from Flint, Michigan—you know it’s an industrial city…cars, automobiles—it gives you that muscle toughness persona. Growing up there is very tough, really challenging. It’s a lot of obstacles…I felt that the only way of making it out was to work hard, focus on the craft and I think that’s one of the things that has helped me being from that environment.
When did you think you could be a pro?
It probably was when I went to prep school. When you go to prep school, you play against a lot of top guys in the country and whatnot. We’re playing this guy who was top 10 at the time or whatever and I had like 25 [points]…everybody says if you’re top 10, you have a lot of pro potential and whatnot, [so] being in prep school, being in that environment playing against multiple Division 1 guys, I really got confident, and I really tried to push for that goal.
Do you remember the first NBA game you ever attended?
Yeah, the first game…it was like Pistons versus Celtics. Paul Pierce was playing, long, long, time ago. It was Paul, maybe Antoine Walker was on the team—it was a long time ago.
Who was your favorite player growing up?
Favorite player? Probably LeBron.
What was it about LeBron that really stuck out to to you?
It was just my era. Growing up, watching basketball when I was young, he was really coming [up]. I just like that he’s so athletic and explosive, and he just knew how to play the game, that was just my era. He was at a summer league game, but he was in the crowd somewhere. [Playing against him] is cool for sure, he’s the King for a reason. He’s one of my favorite players and I’ve always wanted to play against him.
You have really good relationship with Kobe, who is a lot of people’s GOAT. What is the relationship like?
Like you said, he’s the GOAT, one of the GOATS. He’s been a really good resource for me across my journey. [I’m] trying to be a good player in this league and [who] better to have [than] Kobe Bryant as a resource. He’s very intelligent, very articulate. He knows how to speak about the game. He knows how to think about the game. His mindset and mentality towards[his] approach is something that I really want in my life and game, so it’s definitely great.
You love sneakers, you’ve gotten some customization done…how do you express yourself through your shoes?
I’m big on sneakers, always been. You know growing up, I didn’t have that many shoes because I couldn’t afford them. But now I have a little money, so I like to go all out on sneakers. I just think it’s a thing…[it’s] definitely expression. I feel like anytime you meet somebody, you look at their shoes first, you know? I feel like that’s a good way to have a first impression and I just like them, too.
What are some retros that you’re into?
Retro? Any retro [Jordan] IV. I love the IV. I love the [Jordan] 1s…you can’t go wrong with those. You can wear them with jeans, whatever, they look nice, so I’ll probably want those, too.
Okay last question. If I say Tyson, Jordan, or Jackson—which Mike are you picking?
Which Mike am I picking? Umm…just Jordan probably. Well, that’s a toss up…Mike Tyson or Jordan…one of these two. I’ll say Jordan because I play basketball and his mentality and mindset, but Mike Tyson’s mindset was something crazy, too. [Tyson] wanted to kill you…[Jordan] wanted to kill you. That’s a toss up, definitely a toss up.