Kobe Bryant recently made some headlines when he told Time Warner Cable SportsNet’s Mike Bresnahan that, despite his retirement, he still has a desire to help this young Los Angeles Lakers core and the team’s new coaching staff (remember, Bryant played alongside head coach Luke Walton and assistant Brian Shaw).
“I would love to come by. I’ve spoken with Luke several times, Shaw as well,” Bryant told Bresnahan. ” I let the players know that I’m always around, man. I’m always around. If they wanna come out and work out, wake up early in the morning to work out, [I’d] walk them through some things.”
Some people may find this as some sort of slight, but perhaps the best way Bryant can help his former team is by simply staying away from things right now. That isn’t to say that anyone should tell Bryant, a 20-year veteran and all-time great player, that he should stay away from the franchise for good. Rather, it is merely an acknowledgement that for a core group of players with an average age of under 25 years old, it may ultimately be a good thing for them to simply breathe and be on their own for awhile as they take the next step in their development.
Last year ended on quite possibly the highest of high notes that a 17-win team could have possibly imagined, but players were essentially in a holding pattern throughout the season as the grandest of all farewell tours took place around them on a nightly basis. That isn’t to imply that nothing was gained from their first and second years in the league, but it was evident to those of us who followed the team that true progress was probably still some time away for some of the guys struggling to adjust to the league while also attempting to not be blinded by the circus lights.
So when Bryant recently made these comments, it admittedly set off some alarms for those who have been looking forward to seeing the organization fully embrace the youth movement.
Not that Bryant’s tutelage, guidance and extreme wealth of basketball knowledge won’t absolutely come in handy along the way, but it would be nice if the organization finds a way to take advantage of what its living, breathing and dribbling basketball encyclopedia is offering while actually allowing these young guys to establish an NBA identity for themselves that’s completely free of expectations similar to the ones the previous regime shouldered.
Much like a group of college freshmen just recently dropped off for their first taste of on-campus independence and freedom, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and the like could probably use that buffer period of simply being permitted to play, make the on-court mistakes young players will make and establish themselves within the locker room without the heightened expectations or potential distractions that could come from Bryant’s presence.
Not that Bryant himself would necessarily apply this pressure to them, but this group could use a month or two without incessant questions like, “What did you learn or take away from Bryant?” that would be guaranteed to follow if, say, he were to be at training camp. The young players will obviously still need some guidance along the way, but the Lakers’ decision-makers surely hope it’s no longer necessary to hold their hands every step of the way as they mature as players and professionals. Call it “parenting from a distance,” if you will.
“They have a really young core, a really good core,” Bryant added in his interview with Bresnahan. “Now it’s just a matter of them growing together, having those pieces mesh, which I think is a great opportunity. Because now, at this age where their games are still developing, they can develop their games and their strengths around each other.”
Bryant went on to mention Ingram’s potential as a defender and praised the pace that he plays with. It will be nice to see what the extremely long-limbed Ingram is able to develop into on the defensive end as he continues to add strength, but some lessons and tutorials about positioning and footwork from a one-time lockdown defender like Bryant (at some point) certainly wouldn’t hurt his development. Perhaps this is precisely where Bryant can be most of service with this core, as his longtime relationship with the coaching staff could present the perfect bridge. Rather than potentially inundating the young players with everything at once, it would be great to see this staff find a way to disseminate the lessons over time throughout the season and beyond. Should we expect to see Coach Bryant in a suit along the sideline anytime soon? Probably not.
However, it would be fun to see him at least in the building on February 26 (a second-half, Sunday afternoon matchup against the San Antonio Spurs) or even March 3 (a Friday night affair against his favorite foe, the Boston Celtics). The Staples Center crowd would go absolutely nuts if one of those games wound up being one his first appearances and the team would already have as many as 55-60 contests together as a unit. With a flair for the dramatic over the years, one shouldn’t put it past Bryant to do something like that.
Whether Bryant elects to give the players some time to ‘ripen on the vine’ or is specifically asked to take a more active role, expectations for this team have to remain realistic. Simply put, don’t make the mistake of expecting too much, too soon from a group of (albeit talented) late-teens and early-20-somethings still adjusting to a new basketball philosophy under Coach Walton (who will most likely endure growing pains of his own). The veteran additions of Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and a more favorable offensive system should absolutely help the Lakers make some progress on the court, but the younger players should be the focus and will still have to do their part in continuing to grow individually and as a unit.
Outside of Randle’s recent hand laceration, all reports and signs have been very positive this summer as the young core of players have remained dedicated to improving. Beyond the consistent workout and training sessions that have been well-documented across their social media accounts (especially by Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.), Russell, Randle and Ingram also reaped the benefits of being on Team USA’s Select Team. This allowed them to attend USA’s training camp with some of the world’s best talent and receive guidance from top coaches. Each of them garnered praise and received advice from some of the league’s top players, so it will be interesting to see if that trio in particular is able to ride some of this summer’s momentum into the season.
The Lakers may not have been in the position to immediately replace Bryant with a superstar player or even an obvious leader of the team, but they have done a great job of building what looks to be a nice foundation as they start their march back up the hill of true relevance. Perhaps coincidentally, there are a ton of similarities between this current team and the squad that directly preceded the Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal dynasty. Those teams were also centered around a group of young draft picks (Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, even Elden Campbell and the like) that were permitted to truly develop in an organic nature. Bryant told Bresnahan that’s exactly what he hopes to see from this current group.
From the 1993-’94 season to 1995-’96, the Lakers saw their record steadily improve. They went from being a 33-win team to winning as many as 53 games in the season before O’Neal and Bryant arrived. If the Lakers handle this transition well, that’s precisely the type of gradual improvement that could be realistic for this team.
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