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Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) passes the ball past Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield (24) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, April 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Hector Amezcua)
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma passes the ball past Kings guard Buddy Hield on Friday night in Sacramento. (Hector Amezcua / Associated Press)

Kyle Kuzma had often been called a derogatory name in the past by opponents he was guarding, a name that stung the Lakers forward, a term he would hear because of his defensive shortcomings.

Kuzma has been intent on changing that label, his purpose to earn respect for his commitment to defense.

It has become clear that he has evolved as a defender. His willingness to take on the challenge of putting the clamps on Sacramento Kings shooting guard Buddy Hield on Friday night another sign of how far Kuzma has improved on defense.

Kuzma, whose season-high 30 points carried the Lakers to a 115-94 victory over the Kings, couldn’t recall when it clicked, whether it was a conversation with a coach or a teammate or getting roasted by another opponent.

He just knew that at some point if he was going to reach his full potential as an all-around player his defense had to improve.

“Umm, I don’t know. I don’t know,” Kuzma said during a videoconference after the game in Sacramento. “I just kind of just told myself I got to stop being a ‘b—.’ I think that’s the biggest thing. Just taking that challenge.

“Just taking that challenge and just trying to become an all-around dawg, and simple as that. I’m getting more and more confidence guarding those point guards, shooting guards, being versatile, like you said, guarding Buddy that’s running off screens, guarding a four, guarding a wing. It don’t matter to me. I’m just trying to continue to get better and win games and it’s helping me on the court.”

Hield torched the Lakers the last time the two teams met, scoring 29 points, making 11 of 15 shots and seven of 11 three-pointers.

But this time Kuzma refused to let Hield heat up, holding the shooting guard to seven points on three-for-11 shooting, one for nine on three-pointers.

“Kuz plays hard. Like, that’s the simplest way to put it. Like, I’ve never had a problem with him,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said on a videoconference. “When you have a guy like that, that gives maximum effort on the defensive end, there is going to be certain matchups that are challenging for him — you can say that about any player.

“But he brings a high level of focus and a high level of defensive intensity and effort. He’s going to more than survive out there. He’s going to help our defensive proficiency, which he did tonight. And Buddy is a matchup, in terms of chasing shooters, that’s a good matchup for Kuz. So, we felt good about that. He did a great job. Our bigs did a great job on Buddy with being up. It was a team effort to slow him down a little bit, but Kuz deserves a lot of the credit.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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