His presence immediately became noticeable. Kobe Bryant’s arrival at the Lakers’ practice facility earlier this week prompted younger teammates to stop their workouts immediately and greet the Lakers’ star.
So did Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who described Bryant “in great shape and great spirits” after spending the past eight months rehabbing his surgically repaired right shoulder, an injury that sidelined him last season for all but 35 games. Since then, Bryant has recovered enough to complete all basketball-related drills.
“He looks great,” Kupchak said on Thursday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. “He assured me he’s working out every day. Over the years, we’ve gotten to he point where he takes care of himself and when he comes to camp, he’ll be ready. But as far as what level of play and how many minutes and how will he play on the team remains to be seen.”
Kupchak maintained “there hasn’t been any formal discussions” with Lakers coach Byron Scott, trainer Gary Vitti, Lakers president Jeanie Buss and Bryant himself on a number of things surrounding Bryant’s workload. Kupchak said the Lakers have not decided Bryant’s minute and practice limitations as well as if he will sit in any of the team’s 17 sets of back-to-back games. Kupchak only sounded certain that Bryant would sit out in portions of any of the Lakers’ two-a-day sessions in training camp beginning next Tuesday in Hawaii.
Kupchak sounded aware that Bryant played only 41 games in the past three years amid season-ending injuries to his left Achilles tendon (April 2013), left knee (Dec. 2013) and right shoulder (Jan. 2015).
“It’s important for us to keep that in mind and see how he progresses and how he responds to training camp,” Kupchak said. “I would imagine he would not practice twice a day every day. He’s earned the right to really progress in training camp at a certain pace that works for him and works for us.”
Still, Scott has said he hopes to play Bryant in the mid 20-minute range and rest him on back-to-back games, a contrast to last season when he averaged 22.3 points on a career-low 37.3 percent shooting in 36.4 minutes. Bryant then rested eight of the next 16 contests before his injury in late January.
Hence, Kupchak expressed uncertainty on what he expects from Bryant entering his 20th and possibly final NBA season that will pay him $25 million. Yet, Kupchak stayed adamant about Bryant remaining the Lakers’ No. 1 option.
“That would be our assumption going in,” Kupchak said. “He says he’s 100 percent. He’s been shooting and playing basketball and doing his normal routine in Orange County for six or seven weeks now. I know what that means. I’ve watched him work out so I know what he puts himself through. Assuming he’s ready to go, he’ll go full blast and we’ll go from there.”
Still, the Lakers would like to develop their young roster, which includes point guard D’Angelo Russell, combo guard Jordan Clarkson and power forward Julius Randle. For the sake of self-preservation and helping the team’s young roster, how much will Bryant become inclined to defer more?
“I don’t think it’ll be any different than it has been in years past,” Kupchak said with a smile. “He’ll be 100 percent on board with the game plan. He’ll be patient, as patient as can be. There will be a point where if things aren’t going the way that he feels they should be going or the players aren’t producing or his instincts will kick in, I’m sure he’ll try to do much as much as possible. That’s something that will once again flush itself out in training camp and the first six to eight weeks of the season. Hopefully everyone makes a contribution.”