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NBA PM: Kyle Kuzma Flying Under the Radar at Utah

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Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma recently became just one of nine players since 2010 to record at least 16 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists in a single game.

He was surprised to hear how rare his feat was when interviewed by Basketball Insiders.

“Seriously? Wow! That’s crazy!” Kuzma said.

Kuzma joined the likes of Norris Cole (Cleveland State), Isaiah Sykes (UCF) and six others earlier this season when he scored 16 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists against Montana State on December 1. He was one of only three forwards in that group of players to accomplish the feat and was the first to do so this season.

The performance was just one example of how versatile Kuzma has been for the Utes this season. Listed at 6’9, Kuzma is averaging 16 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. He currently leads his team in each of those categories and he ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in points, first in rebounds and ninth in assists.

In the season opener, Kuzma scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds against Northwest Nazarene. Those 19 boards are the most by a Utah player since Andrew Bogut pulled down 20 rebounds in 2005.

“My versatility and my rebounding ability, I think, is pretty special,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders. “I can get rebounds and push it down the break and crash the offensive boards. That just comes with the motor that I have.

“Rebounding is one of the forgotten things in basketball that you don’t really talk about. Everybody really talks about how many points you score and the assists you have or whatever. What if your shots aren’t falling? You can always rely on rebounding and that’s one thing I definitely take pride in.”

His junior year has been his best season at Utah. He has made improvements in nearly every statistical category compared to his sophomore campaign. His points per game have improved from 10.8 to 16, rebounds are up from 5.7 to 11.3 and assists are up from 1.4 to 3.6. He recorded just four double-doubles last season and already has six this season, which ranks second in the Pac-12.

What has been the difference this season?

“My work ethic this summer,” Kuzma said. “I really tried to hit all aspects of my game and tried to get better. The weight room has definitely helped me with rebounding. Overall, defense and all the little things that I’ve always done, I’m just doing that at a higher level right now and playing more minutes. Of course, if you play more minutes your numbers are going to go up too. I think it’s a little bit of everything.”

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While things seem to be going about as well as they can be for Kuzma at Utah, things back at home in Flint, Michigan are not as positive. For over two years, the city has dealt with contaminated water and related issues after changing its primary source of water over to the Flint River.

The switch to the river came even after officials had failed to treat the water to prevent corrosion from its pipes. Since the water was improperly treated, lead from pipes would eventually get into the water causing serious health problems. Perhaps most disgusting is that officials knew about the problem and did nothing to fix it.

In some cases, the water pouring from faucets has come out brown and has caused rashes and elevated blood-lead levels in children. Since the water problems have first surfaced, the city has been declared to be in a state of emergency by the Governor of Michigan and a federal state of emergency by President Barack Obama.

Kuzma is all too familiar with these facts. His entire family lives in Flint and he is limited in how he can help being so far away in Utah. The cost to send home bottles of water is too expensive and not feasible for him to do. Residents all across the city are forced to use bottles of water to cook, brush teeth, wash dishes and drink among other things. They risk serious health problems should they use tap water to do any of those things.

“I went home in May and within the first week I was there, I started getting rashes on my skin from the water from taking a shower,” Kuzma said. “You still have to take showers even though it’s contaminated. [It affects] just the basic essentials of life that you really take for granted, that you really need. It’s pretty surreal.”

He hopes that one day he can have an opportunity to give back to his hometown. In the meantime, he tries to bring as much awareness to the situation as he can. Over the past few months, Kuzma has taken to Twitter to offer a reminder that the city of Flint still doesn’t have clean water. One day, he hopes to be able to do more.

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He has really embraced being his team’s leader this season. The program is in a bit of a transition period as they are faced with integrating six freshmen onto the team. In fact, they started the season with 12 players who didn’t play a single game for the Utes last season. He believes the large turnover in players is why the Utes were ranked eighth in the conference preseason media poll.

Because the Utes have just two seniors on the team, Kuzma has stepped up as a leader. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak has basically given Kuzma the green light to lead the team on and off of the court.

“My first two years at Utah, I was really a role player,” Kuzma said. “Now [I’m] just stepping into a whole different territory and a new role such as being a leader and being somebody that my teammates look upon. I’ve been around here for a while and I can show guys the way really. It’s definitely refreshing and definitely new.”

The Pac-12 this season features some of the best talent in the country. Players like Markelle Fultz (Washington), Lonzo Ball (UCLA) and Ivan Rabb (California) all play in the conference and are all projected to be first-round draft picks. Going up against such strong competition will prove to be difficult in conference play, but it’s a challenge Kuzma enjoys.

“I think that’s why most kids end up choosing high-major schools,” Kuzma said. “You want to play in the bright lights in the biggest of stages versus the best players in the country. To have the highly-touted freshmen that we do in the Pac-12 is a great thing. For players who are under the radar, if you play well against them, you can show people what you can really do. It’s definitely a great thing to have the great players that we do in this conference.”

For now, Kuzma hasn’t made a decision on where he’ll play past this season. It seems reasonable to think that if he continues putting up big numbers, the NBA could become a legitimate option. He’s currently ranked as the 53rd prospect on DraftExpress’ top 100 prospects list and could continue to climb up teams’ draft boards as the season progresses.

The Utes have three games coming up in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii before beginning play in the Pac-12. Three out of their first five games in conference play are against teams that are currently ranked, including a contest against No. 2 UCLA on January 14.

He’s already turned in a near triple-double outing earlier this season and is coming off of a game this past Saturday in which he had 18 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and a block. If those two performances are any indication of how the rest of his season might go, Kuzma and the Utes could be fun to watch.

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About Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer entering his fourth season with Basketball Insiders. He covers the league out of Orlando and Miami, focusing on the Southeast Division.