Hughes: Kuzma for Westbrook the anti-Wizards trade

Kyle Kuzma

Usually, this is not how it goes. The trade that sent Russell Westbrook from the Wizards to the Lakers has become a role reversal of sorts, this time with the Wizards shipping out an aging veteran and acquiring a young player who was given up on too early.

In this case, that young player is Kyle Kuzma, who at age 26 is having a career season. He's averaging 17.2 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting 45.7% from the field and 34.1% from three. Those numbers, however, account for a slow start as he adjusted to a new team.

Over his last 32 games, Kuzma is putting up 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.1 blocks per night. He's shooting 48.2% overall and 35% from long range. Those are borderline All-Star numbers.

And that's a growing sample size of him playing like a star as a top scoring option on the Wizards, meaning he gets assigned the toughest defenders and receives plenty of attention on scouting reports. That element right there suggests it could be sustainable.

Westbrook, meanwhile, is simply not working out for the Lakers. After a special season in Washington in which he averaged a triple-double and led them to the playoffs, his numbers are down across the board: points, assists, rebounds, steals, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. The Lakers are unraveling and he has become the focal point of their fans' frustration.

Kuzma is trending up while Westbrook is trending down and historically the Wizards have been on the wrong end of that equation. Perhaps the most famous example was trading Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond in 1998. Webber was only 25 and went on to make five All-NBA teams with the Kings.


For a collection of other examples, you could just look at the 2003-04 NBA champion Detroit Pistons. They had Rasheed Wallace, whom the Wizards traded for Rod Strickland, plus Richard Hamilton, whom they dealt for Jerry Stackhouse, and they had Ben Wallace, traded for Ike Austin.

All three were key cogs of a championship team. Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace became multi-time All-Stars, while Ben Wallace won four defensive player of the year awards, tying Dikembe Mutombo for the NBA record, and is now in the Hall of Fame.

Webber also made the Hall of Fame and he was teammates with Ben Wallace in Washington. The Wizards had two Hall of Fame big men, who would have complemented each other well in their primes, and both were traded before their best years arrived.

Kuzma has a long way to go before he's in that conversation, or before he's even an All-Star. But he's clearly ascending and seems to have found an ideal situation to reach his potential. The Wizards have him firmly in place as a building block for the future, currently as part of a trio that includes Bradley Beal (if he re-signs) and Kristaps Porzingis.

Related: Add Kuzma to the long list of ex-Lakers thriving elsewhere

Kuzma is under contract through at least next season, with the following year a player option. He has a central role in their offense and is increasingly becoming a face of the team; a leader in the locker room and a prominent voice in postgame press conferences.

If Kuzma does become a star for the Wizards, there will be some irony in that the deal came about because Westbrook wanted out of Washington and because he specifically wanted to play for his hometown Lakers. That led to the Wizards landing Kuzma, because if that trade request never happened, perhaps Westbrook would still be with the Wizards and Kuzma might be playing for the Kings, as he was rumored to be traded to them before the Washington deal came together.

Regardless of how it happened, the Wizards have no reason to look back. They can just move forward with Kuzma, who clearly has more upside to tap into and is poised to reach that potential in Washington. It's a refreshing change for the Wizards, given their history.