Kyle Kuzma spent the first four years of his NBA career playing for the Los Angeles Lakers with home games at Staples Center, LeBron James on his team and A-list celebrities dotting sold-out crowds. So, he could be considered an expert of sorts on in-arena atmospheres. He knows what a good crowd looks and sounds like.
Entering Friday night’s home opener for the Wizards, his first game home regular-season game since being traded to Washington, he wasn’t sure what to think. After their overtime win over the Pacers, consider him impressed.
“Man, I thought it was great. I didn’t expect that many fans to come out, honestly, just from looking at preseason. Man, I was definitely wrong,” he said. “The fans came out, showed out for us. We really, really needed them, especially in those key moments into the fourth and overtime. They helped carry us.”
Kuzma helped the energy in the room with 26 points, 11 rebounds and a steal. He shot 5-for-8 from three, made a tough reverse layup with 59 seconds to go in overtime and then hit the game-sealing free throw with 6.7 seconds left on the clock.
It wasn’t a sellout for the Wizards, as 15,407 were there, about 5,000 short of a packed house. But it was the type of start Kuzma believes the new-look Wizards can build off of. He has talked about changing the culture along with other veterans on the team, many of which came over in offseason moves.
Kuzma was part of a five-team trade centered around an exchange with the Lakers that sent Russell Westbrook to L.A. and Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to D.C.
The Wizards then flipped a draft pick for Aaron Holiday and signed Spencer Dinwiddie as part of the trade. Kuzma put on his GM hat after Friday’s game to evaluate the deal in hindsight.
“I mean, you gotta do that trade 10 out of 10 times. If you have an opportunity to get five good basketball players for one, it makes sense. Granted, [Westbrook is] obviously a Hall of Fame player and everything. He’s an unbelievable player, don’t take that wrong,” Kuzma said.
“But especially for a team like Washington, if you look at the track record from the past couple of years, it hasn’t necessarily been enough ballplayers here… It’s smart, you have to do it if you’re a GM.”
Those offseason moves, along with the hiring of head coach Wes Unseld Jr., have ignited a new era for the Wizards and they are off to a good start, having won their first two games. They beat the Pacers without Bradley Beal, their best player.
Kuzma has an NBA championship ring, so certainly a 2-0 start won’t represent major big-picture progress to him. This is just the start of what he hopes is a “sturdy foundation” for the franchise.
But it was a good start and the fans were a part of it.
“We were even shocked on the bench. We were like ‘yo, it’s gonna be turnt up this year.’ It definitely was surprising,” he said.