Former Runnin' Utes ready to kick off the NBA restart
The day has finally come that the NBA will officially be underway.
Kicking off with the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans at 4:30 MST and the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers at 7 MST, the games at the Disney World Resort in Orlando bubble are sure to bring thrills and joy throughout the nation.
With the league returning to play, it means that three former Utes will resume their playoff chases, with one of them playing for the perennial front-runner for the championship.
KYLE KUZMA, Los Angeles Lakers
Kuzma and the Lakers are widely considered one of the favorites to win the NBA title, thanks in large part to the play of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But Ute fans shouldn't get it twisted, now that he's healthy Kuzma is expected to play a massive role if the Lakers are to be the last team standing.
“After USA, I couldn’t be on the court for two, two and a half months,” Kuzma said of the ankle injury he sustained while training with the USA national team last summer. “Just sit at home, shoot from a chair. So I wasn’t really able to play right away. Especially lifting weights, I couldn’t really bear any weights lower body-wise to get ready for the season. So past four months, it’s been good for me getting in the gym and lifting heavy and getting ready. Having a full training camp definitely helped.”
During LA's recent scrimmage victory over the Orlando Magic, Kuzma dropped a team-high 25 points, going 10-of-13 from the field and 5-of-7 from beyond the arc. It was the sort of performance that LA head coach Frank Vogel, James and his teammates are expecting from Kuzma if the Lakers want to win their first NBA title in more than 15 years.
"Kuz has been one of our best players since this restart in these practices, he’s had a couple of stretches where he just dominated the floor and it’s been really encouraging to see," Vogel said following Kuzma's game against the Magic. "He had some inconsistency with the beginning of our season because he dealt with three different injuries that really prohibited him from getting his legs under him. The shot-making wasn’t always there, but it’s been there at a very high level during this restart, and we’re very encouraged and excited about what having a real/healthy training camp could mean for him. Hopefully that leads to an increased role and gives us that boost that we’re looking for."
During the scrimmages, Kuzma has found his stroke again by averaging 17 points, 7 rebounds and 1 assist per game on 53.8% shooting from the field (14-for-26).
Kuzma's emergence in the frontcourt as a scorer and playmaker is massive to LA's success because it allows Vogel to stagger the minutes of James and Davis, LA's two stars. By staggering their minutes throughout the course of a game and season, it gives Kuzma the opportunity to play sidekick to either player while both stars stay healthy for the postseason.
While Kuzma is helping position his team for a run at a title, former Utah stars Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl are just looking to put their teams in the playoffs.
DELON WRIGHT, Dallas Mavericks
Last season, Wright signed a 3-year, $28-million deal with the Dallas Mavericks that showcased how important he was to the future of the young team with stars like Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis running the show.
Wright's versatility has been his strongest point with the Mavs, being able to play either the 1, 2 or 3 for the team. Before the pandemic shut things down, Wright was averaging 7.3 points, 4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in just over 21 minutes per game. But his biggest step forward was his ability to knock down 38.5% of his shots from beyond the arc.
He's expected to take on a much similar role for the restart, starting some games and playing 25-27 minutes and coming off the bench in others and playing 15-17 minutes per game. Either way, Wright is expected to play a role for a Dallas team that is firmly in the playoff picture and right now scheduled to play the Clippers in the opening round of the playoffs.
JAKOB POELTL, San Antonio Spurs
Poeltl still has a ways to go before he's as coveted as Kuzma and Wright, but if his play in the scrimmages have been any indication of what's to come, his ceiling remains high.
With LaMarcus Aldridge sitting out the rest of the seaosn after undergoing shoulder surgery, Poeltl becomes San Antonio's main big man and will use the next 19 games as sort of a showcase to prove that he's ready to take the next step in his career.
After entering the league as a raw big man, Poeltl has really developed into a defensive-minded center with his shot-blocking and rim-altering capabilities really shining through in his expanded role this season.
Poeltl had sort of a breakout game during Saturday's scrimmage in which the Spurs lost 124-119 to the Nets when he put up 12 points, 11 rebounds, one assist, and one block in 23 minutes. Throughout the scrimmages in Orlando, he's been averaging 9.3 points, 8.0 and 1.3 blocks per game, shooting 73.6% from the field.
He still has a way to go on the offensive side of the ball as it pertains to scoring, but his passing and screening have improved. If the Spurs, who enter the restart four games out of the final playoff spot, are to make a run at the postseason, expect Poeltl to play a big role in that journey.
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