Midway through his career, Kyle Kuzma plans to test out for free agency


LOS ANGELES – Early in the season, Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard likened his menu to disparate ingredients to a meal that was still in the planning stages. He had his protein—Bradley Bell—but the starches, vegetables, fats, and how they might all combine to make a final dish remains to be decided. One reason for the unstable nature of the group was that the Wizards had few key players with impending and important contract decisions.

Sheppard ditched the kitchen, speaking bluntly in an interview Oct. 14, the day of Washington’s final preseason game: “I expect the final lineup to change quite a bit.”

Recently, Kyle Kuzma joined Sheppard in saying the quiet part out loud. In an interview this week, following remarks he made at the Athletic, Kuzma said he does not expect to sign an extension with the Wizards and plans to turn down his player option for the 2023-24 season to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

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Kuzma’s intentions came as no surprise to the Wizards, for whom the 27-year-old has become a regular fixture. Kuzma’s earning potential increases if he enters the free agent market, and Washington, with $208 million tied for Beal over the next four seasons and with Kristaps Porzingis also getting a player option for next season, Kuzma could trade the February 9 deadline for valuable assets rather than be allowed to walk away in free agency for nothing in return.

“These are just business decisions,” Kuzma said.

Kuzma has made himself an attractive option for agent snatchers or business partners across the NBA by taking another step forward this season in his development.

He never shy away from the fact that, in the wake of a painful deal from the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2021, he saw joining the Wizards as an opportunity to expand his game. Washington had plenty of room for a player to advance alongside Bell, and Kuzma appreciated their quieter market that allowed him to focus on work and get to work.

The forward is on pace to achieve career-highs in minutes (35), points (21.4) per game, and field goal percentage (46.2), and is an essential facilitator on offense, especially while Bell is out with a hamstring strain. Kuzma warmed up to his routine before and after matches.

“Last year really gave me a taste of how good I really am in this league, and it gave me a lot of confidence, with everyone out on the field. I had to get to him every night, and I think that really helped set my mentality up for the way I’ve handled it this year,” he said. Kuzma said. “Because every night I know I have to be ready to play at a high level to help give us a chance to win. It starts after the games, starting the morning before and the day before how I eat, how I exercise, how I recover.

“Those things, they’re all important. And that’s probably why I’ve been consistent this year. My car has been consistent every night.”

Kuzma’s outlook on his career has been shaped in Los Angeles, where the Wizards (11-18) will try to halt their eight-game losing streak this weekend against the Clippers on Saturday or the Lakers on Sunday.

Trade with Washington was a moment of forced growth. Kuzma knew the NBA was a business, but knowing and feeling the harsh realities of an unexpected, life-uprooting trade are two different things. Kuzma left some of his innocence behind in Los Angeles.

But most important for the forward was the Lakers’ championship season in 2019-20. Kuzma was a valuable point-shooting role player who saw what it took for an NBA team to work together in harmony.

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It’s often obvious how much this season has imprinted on Kuzma. He recalled his former team at the start of the season when he was asked on a media day about his favorite part of the player-only mini-camp over the summer.

His answer wasn’t about basketball but the fact that his teammates got together after each day’s work and hung out, got to know each other in relaxed situations and naturally built chemistry — just like he said, what it was like to be in the locker room with the Lakers.

When asked how his experience at the Lakers shaped his view of his career, Kuzma gave an answer that’s almost as hard as an NBA player: He just wants to win. But unlike many players, Kuzma knows what that looks like in practice.

“I got a taste of winning at a young age, and people, they don’t always have a chance to win and get into teams that win in this league. It’s really a lot rarer than people think,” Kuzma said. “You don’t have to take winning for granted, and that’s something I’ve realized In my career – never take winning situations for granted. I’m not saying it’s always a happy place to work, because Los Angeles was a show. But everyone was on the same page, everyone knew what they had to do and tried to do it. That’s rare in this league.”

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