The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kyle Kuzma, in the middle of a career year, plans to test free agency

Kyle Kuzma has taken on a starring role in his second season in Washington. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — Back at the start of the season, Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard likened his roster to disparate ingredients of a meal still in its planning stages. He had his protein — Bradley Beal — but starch, vegetables, fat and how they would all meld to make a finished entree was yet undecided. One of the reasons for the unsettled nature of the group was that the Wizards had a few key players with impending, significant contract decisions.

Abandoning the kitchen, Sheppard spoke plainly 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 has joined Sheppard in saying the quiet part out loud. In an interview this week, following statements he made in the Athletic, Kuzma said he does not expect to sign an extension with the Wizards and plans to decline his player option for the 2023-24 season to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

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Kuzma’s intentions are no surprise to the Wizards, for whom the 27-year-old has become a core player. Kuzma’s earning potential increases if he enters the free agent market, and Washington, with $208 million tied to Beal over the next four seasons and with Kristaps Porzingis also holding a player option for next season, could trade Kuzma at the Feb. 9 deadline for valuable assets rather than letting him walk in free agency for nothing in return.

“Those are just business decisions,” Kuzma said.

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

He has never shied away from the fact that, in the wake of a painful trade from the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2021, he viewed joining the Wizards as an opportunity to expand his game. Washington had ample space for a player to step up alongside Beal, and Kuzma appreciated its quieter market that allowed him to focus in and go to work.

The forward is on pace for career highs in minutes (35) and points (21.4) per game and field goal percentage (46.2), and he is an integral facilitator on offense, especially while Beal has been out with a hamstring strain. Kuzma has homed in on his routine before and after games.

“Last year really gave me a taste of how good I can really be in this league, and it gave me a lot of confidence, having that one stretch where everyone was out. I had to get to it every night, and I think that really helped me prepare my mentality for how I approached this year,” Kuzma said. “Because every night I know I’ve got to be ready to play at a high level to help give us a chance to win. That starts after games, that starts the morning of and the day before with how I eat, how I work out, how I recover.

“Those things, they all matter. And it’s probably why I’ve been so consistent this year. My motor’s been consistent every night.”

Kuzma’s outlook on his career was formed 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.

The trade to 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 guilelessness in Los Angeles.

But most formative for the forward was the Lakers’ championship season in 2019-20. Kuzma was a role player valued for spot-up shooting and saw what it takes for an NBA club to come together and work in harmony.

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It’s often evident how much that season imprinted on Kuzma. He invoked his former team at the start of the season when asked on media day about his favorite part of the Wizards’ players-only minicamp over the summer.

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

Asked how his Lakers experience shaped his perspective on his career, Kuzma gave a pat NBA player answer: He just wants to win. But unlike many players, Kuzma knows what that looks like practically.

“I got a taste of winning at a young age, and people, they don’t really always have an opportunity to win and be on teams that win in this league. It’s really far rarer than people think,” Kuzma said. “You should not take winning for granted, and that’s one thing that I’ve realized in my career — don’t take winning situations for granted. I’m not saying it’s always a happy workplace, because L.A. was a s--- 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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