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In Flint, Mich., there's only one place where serious basketball players go. When Kyle Kuzma gets off the plane after landing in his hometown, it's usually his first stop.
At noon in the summertime, the downtown YMCA fills up with hoops hopefuls and pro-caliber players alike. The pickup doctrine of having "next" is frequently bent you can have next game and be on the sidelines four or five games in a row if there are five guys better than you.
It was in this environment that Kuzma learned the game: The scrawny teenager had to play survival of the fittest with grown men.
"You just had to make shots," he said. "If you hit three or four shots in a row, that guy who's got next is going to take you on his team."
Now a sophomore forward with the Runnin' Utes, Kuzma has advanced from little-used role player to starter, a major reason Utah sits at 7-1 headed into Saturday's contest at Wichita State.
Game announcers have taken to calling the 6-foot-9 Flint native "the Microwave," thanks in part to his boom-or-bust factor. While he has his cold patches coach Larry Krystkowiak said he has a tendency to "float" Kuzma can heat up in a hurry.
But unlike at the Y, shots haven't been as much of a problem for Kuzma as defense. If you can't defend for the Utes, you sit. And his defense has taken some of the biggest strides this year, as Kuzma has become more productive, less foul-prone and more attentive on the glass.
After Kuzma had a ho-hum freshman season from the four-star prospect averaging only 8.1 minutes per game, Krystkowiak saw a renewed sense of dedication emerge in postseason individual meetings. Kuzma came into his office, admitted that he wasn't happy with the way things had turned out in his first year, and asked how he could get better.
"We laid out a list of things for him to do and he has done them," Krystkowiak said. "He puts a lot of work in."
Kuzma showed up to fall camp weighing 11 pounds more than he did as a freshman, as a result of an offseason in the weight room. As he's picked up his scoring averages (10.6 ppg, 48.3 percent shooting), he's also helped hold opponents to 44.1 percent shooting inside the arc with fellow sophomore big Jakob Poeltl. His seven rebounds per game are second-best on the team.
It's no surprise to those who watched him at the YMCA in Flint: They always knew the potential was there, ever since he started gravitating to the pick-up games.
"He was a gym rat," said Jeff Grayer, a 10-year NBA vet who mentored Kuzma. "He was a wiry-looking young fella. The question was always, 'How tall will he get?' But his ability to catch and shoot the basketball was really good."
Kuzma sprouted up as a high school sophomore and junior, adding inches to his already talented game. He started getting attention, including from Utah assistant DeMarlo Slocum, who eventually persuaded him to commit to the Utes.
But Kuzma's own powers of observation were honed in that gym: There are no jerseys, no pictures, no banners on the walls of the YMCA. You have to be able to recognize the legends on sight, like Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell the "Flintstones" who won a title with Michigan State in 2000.
Flint's basketball scene is richer than one might expect for a town smaller than Salt Lake City that is riddled with crime problems, as its natives attest. There's not much to do, Grayer said: Playgrounds aren't always safe havens. For basketball players, there's home, and there's the YMCA.
That's why Kuzma can rattle off every Flint native and their statistics off the top of his head. One of his best friends, Monte Morris, is averaging 15 points and 7 assists for Iowa State. JaVontae Hawkins, averaging almost 19 ppg, is starring for Eastern Kentucky.
If a basketball player came through Flint, he came through the Y.
"There's two things about Flint we're known for: one was cars, the other thing was sports," Grayer said. "We embrace all of our kids who come through here. There's such a sense of seeing a young fella do well, someone we can take pride in. It's one of the positive things we have in our community."
But Utah has also undoubtedly built Kuzma into what he is, as well. He committed because he liked the vision Krystkowiak outlined for him: He could be a special player.
Karri Kuzma, Kyle's mother, said her son views Krystkowiak much like he would a father which has its pros and cons.
"He's a lot like a father in that he expects a lot out of you," she said. "But you also experience that closeness, as well. That means a lot to Kyle."
Sometimes, Kuzma experiences more of the stick than the carrot. Some of Krystkowiak's loudest criticisms from the bench are in his direction, and practices are often tough as well. On Monday at Krystkowiak's 700 AM radio show, he told the crowd at the Desert Edge Brewery that "Kuz might need a hug" after a tough practice that day.
But he also said something deeply revealing in that hour: "Man, I would've given anything to have his talent."
Grayer played with Krystkowiak on the Milwaukee Bucks, and while the two have never talked about Kuzma, he sees the similarities of the two players: Krystko could shoot from the outside to spread the floor, but also didn't hesitate to bang in the post. Kuzma is the same kind of versatile threat. The two men are even listed at the same height.
"That's why it felt good when he did make the decision," said Vin Sparacio, who was Kuzma's prep school coach. "Coach K was that guy that looked to Kyle, and saw a little bit of himself. I knew he was going to do everything possible to make sure he groomed him into the guy he is now."
It's taken Kuzma a bit of time to adjust to the expectations, but he told Krystkowiak entering the season that "I still want to be coached as hard as when I was a freshman." Krystkowiak has given him his wish, and the Microwave continues to warm up.
The next step is playing well on the road. The step after that might be getting a little better on his 3-point shot. The step after that well, there's always going to be another step.
That's what drives Kuzma: the hopes and dreams of his hometown, the expectations of his head coach. And he's not planning on letting anyone down.
"It feels good to play," he said. "It feels good to show people what I can do. It makes me want more."
By summertime in Flint at this rate, he's not going to have to wait behind anybody for his next game.
Kuzma heating up
O Averaging 10.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 21.4 mpg as a sophomore
• Scored a career-best 23 points in season opener against Southern Utah
• Has two double-doubles this year, six games of 7 rebounds or more Utah at Wichita St.
P Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN2