Kobe Bryant is about to begin his 20th season with the Los Angeles Lakers, a new record for most years with a single franchise in NBA history. Think about spending 20 years at your current job, working with a lot of the same people and doing mostly the same things every day. Now imagine that your company used to be one of the most successful in it's field, but has recently fallen on hard times. Add in that you might be walking away at the end of the year. Sound monotonous? Not for Kobe.
"It's exciting to see the young guys coming in. D'Angelo [Russell], talking to him a little bit about how does he feel coming into this. I can see a lot of myself, in terms of the nervousness, first media day not knowing what to expect, said Bryant in an interview with Time Warner Cable SportsNet's Chris McGee and new Lakers player development coach James Worthy, "but I'm excited about it, it's a good balance I'm excited for Metta to be back. They can observe his professionalism and how hard he works, so it's good."
It takes a special type of love for your profession to use variations of the word "excited" that many times when you are about to finish your second decade at the same place. The Lakers have placed prized rookie D'Angelo Russell's locker next to Bryant's for the upcoming season, partially so Bryant can help instill that same passion in Russell, something Bryant seems prepared to do.
"For me, it's just reminding him as the year goes on that this is a game he has been playing since he was a kid," said Bryant. "That seems like a very easy thing, that is the most important thing, because you get distracted by all the stuff that is going on, you're living in LA, the criticism of the media, public, friends, whatever the case may be, and then what happens is your world can really shrink. You can lose sight of the fact that this is a game you have been playing since you were a kid. Right? So it's just reminding him to come back to the basics, it's all about the craft, just keep working on that, keep fine tuning that, and everything else will fall into place."
For his part, Russell sounds as eager to be a pupil as Bryant is to teach.
"I don't know how much longer he's going to be around, but for me to have my locker right next to him, I get to pick his brain a little bit more." What does he intend to learn from Bryant? "As much as possible. That dude's a genius," said Russell. "He didn't get to where he's at now on accident. A lot of guys are hall of fame players, a lot of guys are successful, but when you say Kobe everybody knows him as who he is. A hard working guy who has so many morals to define him."
Bryant's tutelage of Russell is a key part of the Lakers' season, and something the organization hopes will help the 19 year old now and an experience that will pay dividends down the road. But Bryant has been around the league long enough to know how hard it is for young teams to win games, and as Kobe said of the litter of little Lakers "they are so young, some of them could probably be my kids."
Kobe is not waiting around, remarking on how the "last few seasons, it got to a point during the season, where you are showing up to the arena and the games mean nothing.That's a horrible feeling to have, horrible feeling to have, so I'm hell bent on making sure that we don't have a season like that. You want to make sure you are playing late in the season for games that actually mean something, for games that have playoff implications."
While the playoffs seem like a longshot at best, the organization did add some veterans to supplement the team's youth movement and strive to be more competitive than last season, highlighted by the front office's offseason trade for Roy Hibbert. Bryant sounds like he understands what Hibbert can do defensively, raving about how the seven footer can help with the teams defense in "screen-roll coverages," by allowing the team to start "funneling guys to the basket," where they will be met by "a rim protector there with serious size that players need to think about before going in there."
Bryant also sounds prepared to line up alongside Hibbert at times in the frontcourt, noting "I've been playing there for the last 10 years, doesn't make a difference. Especially now, a power forward now is what a two guard used to be when James [Worthy] played. It's all small ball, unless you are playing the Memphis Grizzlies or something like that, you really have nothing to worry about being a four."
Another thing Bryant is not worried about? His minutes and usage.
"It's tough to have a number [on my minutes limit]. Last year it was somewhere between 34 and 36, this year I don't expect it to be any higher, I don't expect it to be any less. You just have to go to read the situation, we were pretty good about it last year in terms of me communicating to Byron how my body feels."
"I understand that after 20 years, and with age, and three season ending injuries in a row, that certain limitations need to be put in place in order for me to have a consistent season. So I'm comfortable with that, but I have worked extremely hard this summer to be able to play at a high level, regardless of if it's 30, if it's 48, I'm prepared to do whatever is necessary and that is my job to do so."
It doesn't mean he won't, but Kobe is also not necessarily planning on sitting out of back-to-back games.
"The goal is [to play in] 82 [games]," he said. "That's what I'm here for, that's the goal, that's what I strive for, and then obviously you can't predict what is going to happen, certain situations happen but that's always the goal."
Bryant is also still undecided on whether or not he is going to retire following the 2015-16 season, but noted that in regards to the fanfare he received last season from opponents and fans alike who began to realize his career was much closer to the end than beginning, it "was fun to be a part of it last year, but it's much more fun to win."
The Lakers may not do a whole lot of winning this season, but after a franchise low in '14-15, there is nowhere to go but up. Mark that down as one more item to the list of things Kobe is excited about as he kicks off what could be his final training camp.