When Kobe Bryant came into the league, Nick Van Exel was a fourth year veteran in the midst of a 13 year NBA career. 20 years later, Bryant is now in the midst of a season long farewell tour celebrating his Hall of Fame career, and Van Exel says that while he wouldn't have predicted this level of greatness from Kobe so early, there were signs that his constant drive to improve would make him a special player.
"I'm sure people around here have seen him grind, grind, grind, and the kid was like that when he came into the league, his work ethic, his drive, it was unbelievable," said Van Exel, now head coach of the Texas Legends in the NBA D-League. "He's always been a real competitive person from day one."
Van Exel recalled one of the Lakers' first tastes of Bryant's competitive drive.
"I do remember one time we were having a shootaround, and in the shootaround we were just walking through the plays, just trying to figure out the defenses as you're walking through them," said Van Exel. "And [Kobe] was going really really hard at Eddie Jones, and we all just started laughing. And he was the only one not laughing, like the coaches was laughing, everybody.
"[Kobe] was not laughing. So finally, Del [Harris] had to tell him 'we're not going 100% yet!''
The man formerly known as "Nick the Quick" chuckled at the memory, and while some have called Bryant a bad teammate throughout his career for his tendency to be just as hard on the players wearing his own jersey as his opponents, Van Exel argued the opposite.
"Any time we would go against that second group, we really had to play for real. He wouldn't allow us to go through the motions, and I think he was making us better players because he competed so hard."
All quotes obtained firsthand. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.