HONOULU — The exercised involved a simple three-man drill, but Lakers rookie guard D’Angelo Russell struggled to process it all.
The drill itself is simple and elementary for any basketball team, let alone the Lakers. But what left Russell pinching himself on his first day of Lakers’ training camp here at Stan Sheriff Center entailed who also completed the drill. His name is Kobe Bryant. He is entering his 20th and perhaps final NBA season. And when Bryant made his preseason debut here on Oct. 10, 1996, Russell had only turned 221 days old.
“It was great. You try to keep it off your mind like this guys is not right besides you,” Russell said Tuesday after the Lakers’ practiced. “That’s something you have to get past. If you want to be the best, we have to look at him as a mentor and not look at him as a fan.”
That explains why Russell took notes on how Bryant looked in his first practice since tearing the rotator cuff in his right shoulder eight months ago, an injury that required season-ending surgery. Toward the tail end of practice, Bryant skipped portions of the Lakers’ sprinting and shooting drills while receiving treatment on his shoulder.
“He looked good. You could tell he was trying to pace himself a little bit,” Russell said of Bryant. “I didn’t really know what to expect. Coming in, I didn’t think he’d be go through the whole practice knowing it’s his first one back. He looked good.”
That explains why Russell arose early Monday morning in hopes to squeeze an early workout in, though a certain Lakers’ teammate already beat him to the punch.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, so I woke up really early just ready to get here. But I know Kobe got here early,” Russell said. “I know I plan on getting here early also. It was like the first day of school honestly.”
And on that first day of school, Russell’s teacher already handed out a generous evaluation.
“He knows the little details about the game here and there,” Bryant said of Russell. “He loves the game. When you have player that loves the game, it’s my responsibility to make sure he never loses sight of that through difficult moments and even the great moments and focus on the love of the game. Once you have that, you’ll probably solve everything. So stay focused on that. I have to keep him locked in there.”
Bryant did not stop there.
“He has a lot of poise out there,” Bryant said of Russell. “He’s very calm under duress. He doesn’t seem fazed by much.”
Well, with perhaps one exception.
Russell admitted feeling overwhelmed with Bryant’s presence. Russell’s eyes also lit up when informed about Bryant’s glowing assessment.
“Those are high words,” Russell said. “I feel like a lot of guys have that one inspiration off the court that keeps them going. Mine is being on the court. I have the opportunity to be blessed and play every day. I really take those strong words into consideration. I keep working. You’re getting paid to do something you love. Not a lot of guys get to dream of something when you’re young and make it a reality.”
Yet, Bryant still shed down layers of his steely persona. Moments before talking to reporters, Bryant stopped to chat with Russell and Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson. Then, Bryant laughed with them and embraced them.
“He’s going to get some wisdom from one of the greatest players that ever played the game,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said of Russell. “Kobe, obviously during the drills, is taking him to the side and talking to him and I saw that this morning. D’Angelo is one of those guys that’s a sponge. He wants to learn. That’s a great relationship to have and to be able to talk to somebody that’s been there so many times and been so successful.”