The NBA is full of varying personalities from the enigmatic Kawhi Leonard to the larger-than-life Joel Embiid, but as a whole the culture could probably be described as more laidback than its counterparts.
Baseball players carry an intensity from playing every single day and failing more often than they succeed. Football and hockey are extremely structured and also brutal on the body. The NBA, through its marketing and player empowerment, celebrates individual expression more than the others.
Still, Kyle Kuzma may stand out as more mellow than most. In interviews, he speaks methodically and in extensive detail. He pauses to think and is deeply introspective, perhaps a result of his sociology degree in college, which he says helps guide his social interactions.
During a Twitter Q&A this summer, Kuzma remarked how a D.C. restaurant with a location in Los Angeles doesn't have "the same vibes." He is all about those vibes.
Kuzma isn't originally from the West Coast, but he lived on that side long enough for it to leave an imprint. After growing up in Flint, Mich. and spending some time in Philadelphia, he went west for college at Utah. He then played the first four years of his NBA career in Los Angeles with the Lakers.
But in order to find his level and encapsulate that trademark California spirit, Kuzma had to tune out a lot of noise. As a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and a key player on their latest title team in 2020, the spotlight burned hot.
His profile is probably quite a bit higher than it would have been if he began his career for a less-storied team. But that also presents another side, a level of criticism and sometimes ridicule not applied to other players of his age and stature.
Kuzma will always be associated with the Lakers and has a championship ring to prove it. But he also gets slammed left and right by haters online. His name was trending on Twitter during and after Tuesday's Wizards-Rockets preseason opener because he shot 3-for-10 from the field. Again, it was a preseason game.
Kuzma, though, has learned to take it all in stride.
"Life is all about reference points," Kuzma told NBC Sports Washington. "I think one of the best things I can say about that is, I think it was Brian Scalabrine, I think he said to somebody ‘I’m closer to [LeBron James] than you are to me.’ That just speaks to it, you know what I’m saying? That’s kind of what it is because no matter what, if you’re a fan - and I’m a fan. I’m a fan of football players, I’m a fan of this. Naturally, as a fan’s perspective, if somebody’s not doing well, you’re going to say that.
"That’s just how fans evaluate the game and how they interpret it. But in the grand scheme of things, there’s only 450 players in the world that play in the NBA at a given time and there are millions of players worldwide that would love to play in the NBA but they don’t. Going back to what I said, it’s all about your reference point and it’s all about what you listen to and what you really care about that’s real or not. I don’t really care what people say and I never have because, for me, one you don’t know me, you don’t know how hard I work. It takes a certain amount of focus to get to this level. Also, my journey. I’m not supposed to be here."
In fact, there are only 450 NBA players on active rosters at any given time: 30 teams and 15 players per roster. If you include two-way players, there can be up to 510.
While all professional athletes belong to an exclusive group, there are far fewer spots to go around in the NBA. There are 1,696 roster spots in the NFL, 780 in MLB and 736 in the NHL.
There is an even greater discrepancy over time. In the entire history of the NBA, there have only been around 4,500 total players compared to approximately 8,000 in the NHL, about 20,000 in MLB and roughly 27,000 in the NFL.
Just reaching the NBA is a remarkable feat and one Kuzma always circles back to. The mention of his journey was a nod to him not having a single Division I offer by his junior year of high school. He had one offer from an NIAA school, that was it, and all after he overcame a difficult upbringing.
"If you know me, you know my story is kinda crazy," he said.
Kuzma isn't entirely sheltered from what he likes to call "chitter-chatter." Though he doesn't actively peruse his mentions to see the jokes and memes, he says he can't always escape it. Some of them even make him laugh.
But ultimately, he takes solace in what he knows to be true. Everything you see him do on the basketball court follows months (and years) leading up to that point. All the hours training in the offseason, at practice and in the film room. That preparation brings perspective.
"It kind of just goes to show you that people don’t really understand basketball. You don’t understand how much a person puts into it, you don’t really understand the game as a whole," Kuzma said. "The casual fan in the NBA, they just look at points instead of what a person’s role is, what they are supposed to do on the court. All that stuff ties into it. Obviously, playing in a bigger market you get a lot more praise and you get a lot more chitter-chatter. That just kind of comes with it. You always just take it with a grain of salt and you understand that the only opinions that really matter are the people that are around you, meaning your team, as in the people in your support system outside of the organization and your coaches and your teammates."
Kuzma continued: "When you start looking out and looking for praise from people, or listening to chitter-chatter, you can get into a dark place. Or, you can get into a place where your ego is higher than what it should be instead of just being even-keeled. That’s a great lesson. That’s a great lesson for anybody, but especially for me. Being in L.A. really taught me that, it taught me how to be even-keeled and just focus on what’s real. Social media is not real. At the end of the day, it is real, but it’s a very small amount of people. You may look at something and you see they’re chitter-chattering, talking bad about you, or whatever. In the grand scheme of it, it might be 200 people. Like, who gives a [expletive]? But at the same time, if you’re in real life and you’re in your real reality, you see me or somebody on the street and it’s all love. It’s all ‘hey, hey.’ When you look at it like that, it doesn’t really matter."
Social media can indeed be a poor representation of the outside world. Just on Twitter, the most active 10% of registered accounts send an estimated 80% of total tweets, per Pew Research. And only 22% of American adults use the app. It is ultimately a small snapshot of society.
In the real world, Kuzma will likely find notable differences in playing for the Wizards rather than the Lakers. In L.A., they expect to win championships, as they are tied with the Celtics for the most in NBA history (17). In Washington, fans love basketball but are starving for a winner, having not made the conference finals since 1979.
There is pressure, as there always is in the NBA, but it's different. Perhaps Kuzma can find it easier to circumvent the noise if there is less of it, or if it comes in different forms.
Kuzma is now in D.C. and he brought some of those West Coast vibes with him. He's very into wine and says having a wine cellar was a prerequisite for his new home in the D.C. area. He brought 200 bottles with him.
"I’ve got so many bottles," he said.
Back in L.A., he has a wine cellar with 750 bottles and a rack on his living room wall with another 180. He has wine in his collection that dates back to 1925. Most of them are from France, which he says is "wine heaven."
"I don’t even drink California wine, honestly," Kuzma said.
Maybe some Virginia-based vineyards can win him over. Until then, he will do his best to win over D.C. basketball fans.