LOS ANGELES — As the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers changed in relative peace following the team's 101-88 loss to the Washington Wizards on Sunday night, the scrum of reporters around Kobe Bryant's empty locker grew bigger and bigger. The gravitational pull Bryant's presence was large enough that it was sucking in more and more media before he even showed up, allowing the rest of the team to escape the locker room without having to chat with more than a handful or members of the press, if any at all.
The scene was a perfect example of how despite his declining game, Bryant is still the biggest star in the solar system as far as the Lakers and the media that covers them are concerned. With only nine games left in his legendary career as of Sunday night, however, the team is on the hunt for his successor. Does Bryant think that anyone on the Lakers has earned that role yet?
Not 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle? Or second-round steal and sophomore stud Jordan Clarkson? What about the Lakers' second overall pick from a year ago, D'Angelo Russell?
"If you have to ask that question, the answer is already there," proclaimed Kobe.
Of the Lakers young players, Russell probably has the best shot to fill Bryant's shoes. The rookie furthered that line of thought on Sunday night, putting in a Bryant-like 22 points on 20 shots against the Washington Wizards. He also was reminiscent of Kobe in the way he played through an ankle injury sustained on Friday night against the Denver Nuggets.
The ankle turn looked bad enough in the moment that many thought it would end his season, but Russell did everything he could to be out on the floor on Sunday night, even hopping up and down during stoppages in play to keep from stiffening up.
"Gary Vitti did his magic touch and it was great," said Russell after the game, but Lakers head coach Byron Scott thought his 19-year old point guard deserved credit as well.
"The fact that [Russell] was able to gut it out and play in the game tonight showed some guts," praised Scott.
But it will take more than just guts to become the Lakers' next franchise player, and if it turns out that Russell isn't the answer, the team may find that successor in the draft this summer.
The Lakers are currently in sole possession of the second-worst record in the NBA, which would give them a 55.8 percent chance to keep their pick by virtue of it staying within the top-three selections in the draft. If it falls to fourth or lower, it will be conveyed to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Should the Lakers be fortunate enough to keep their pick, Kobe has some advice for what type of player they should pick.
"A franchise player," said Bryant. "But those aren't easy to find."
As the media waited for the last franchise player the Lakers found to come to his locker after receiving treatment from the training staff, one team official joked that the Lakers will have a bidding war for the next player to get Bryant's locker once he retires. Kobe voiced a similar sentiment: that whoever wants to fill his shoes when he's done is going to have to come and take them.
"Torches never get passed. You've got to earn that."
In nine games, the wait for a player to do so begins in earnest in Los Angeles.
All stats per NBA.com and all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.