HONOLULU — The sequence hardly looked peaceful.
In an image that he once displayed in countless Lakers playoff and regular season games, Metta World Peace wasted no time in his preseason debut against Utah on Tuesday addressing questions about his durability and effectiveness. The former Ron Artest swiped the ball out of his opponent’s hands. He pursued the ball by diving over the Lakers’ bench. And World Peace instantly caught the attention of one certain teammate whose presence has significantly influenced his mindset on successfully returning to the NBA.
“Very impressed,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “It felt like old times of he and I getting after it.”
One of those times included World Peace playing a major part in the Lakers’ Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals during his four-year tenure wearing purple and gold (2009-2013). But after the Lakers waived him in 2013 through the amnesty clause to save up to $30 million in combined salary and luxury taxes, more doubts emerged about World Peace.
Despite posting numbers in the 2012-13 campaign that marked his highest scoring output with the Lakers (12.8 points on 40.5 percent shooting), World Peace looked limited after tearing his meniscus in his left knee late in the season. He faced limited playing time the following season in New York before both sides negotiated a buyout. World Peace then spent the last year dabbling in overseas gigs in China and Italy.
The Lakers gave World Peace a chance by signing him to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal worth $1.5 million to their 2015 training camp roster, a situation he said would not have happened if not for Bryant’s influence.
“Kobe is the main reason why I worked so hard in the last couple of years,” World Peace said after posting seven points on 2-of-5 shooting, four rebounds, four turnovers and two assists in 21 minutes in the Lakers’ 117-114 overtime loss to Utah on Tuesday at Stan Sheriff Center. “I always wanted to come back and play with Kobe. I remember playing with Kobe, the sacrifices he made, playing hard, making unbelievable shots and showing unbelievable fundamentals. People can say he’s selfish all they want. But in the game, he’s so fundamentally sound. That’s tough to be fundamentally sound under all that pressure.”
World Peace has faced his own pressure trying to ensure a spot on the Lakers’ roster.
He missed two practices, three scrimmages and the Lakers’ preseason opener in the last week after straining his left calf. Although the Lakers signed him partly to serve as a mentor, World Peace faces plenty of competition for playing time both at power forward (Julius Randle, Brandon Bass and Ryan Kelly) and small forward (Bryant, Nick Young, Anthony Brown).
“He just needs to show us that he’s still Metta and can defend at a very high level at multiple positions, still get up and down the floor and play within the offense,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said beforehand. “We already know he can be a great teammate. He’s been great at our training camp with our young guys. But we want to know if he can still play at a high level.”
World Peace downplayed concerns about his play. But he even admitted uncertainty beforehand about his durability.
“Only time will tell,” World Peace said. “I’m pretty smart, but I don’t know what’s going on with my body. You couldn’t put a phone to Derrick Rose’s leg and say, ‘Today he might be hurt.’ When you play basketball, who’s not hurt?”
World Peace hardly looked hurt against Utah.
His night started out with chasing a loose ball. World Peace showed some promise with his outside touch. Rarely did World Peace allow his opponent an inch of space to operate.
“He straps up,” Lakers center Roy Hibbert said. “He plays ‘D’ and nothing’s getting by him. He looked good out there.”
So good that World Peace’s presence helped the Lakers trim a 19-point second-quarter deficit to one by halftime.
“It started with Metta,” Scott said. “As soon as he came in the game in the second quarter, he just turned it up. And everyone fed off of him.”
World Peace made a similar argument about his energy, saying “it’s contagious.” But even if he smiled when informed about Scott’s compliment, World Peace argued his own imprint on the Lakers’ latest preseason game stemmed from Scott’s conditioning-heavy practices.
“I’m working hard everyday because Byron is tough. That first practice let me know. It took me out two days,” said World Peace, who added Scott’s practices are the toughest he encountered in his 15-year NBA career. “He doesn’t have to tell you to go hard. You can see it on his face. The first practice was unbelievably hard. I was like, ‘Okay when I go out on the court in a real game, I have to go all balls out.'”
That’s exactly what World Peace did.
He bruised his way into the post.
“I can give these guys work,” World Peace said. “On that block, there’s not too many people that will stop me down there.”
He frequently pointed out what he called “little backdoors and little reads” to his younger teammates, notably Randle.
“I’ll give them more and more and more until they tell me to shut up because they can help us get to the playoffs,” World Peace said. “Julius is a leader and can lead the team to the playoffs.”
And yes, World Peace also showed some head-scratching moments that Lakers fans remember all too well with his occasional erratic shooting or wreckless fast-breaks. World Peave attempted to perform a behind-the-back dribble, only for the ball to hit off of his right shoe.
“That was a bad one,” World Peace said, laughing. “Man, that was bad. We’ll work on that one.”
Yet through it all, World Peace refused to make a big deal about his debut. It is a preseason game, after all. He was not in the locker room during the Lakers’ post-game interviews. World Peace lingered in the arena afterwards for a post-game workout. It took so long that the team left without him, requiring him to take an Uber back to the team hotel. World Peace only agreed to an interview with two reporters because they had waited him out.
“It’s still early. I’m not in shape at all,” World Peace said. “I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to act like I did anything impressive. I’m just out there to wait until my number is called. If you see me in the summer time, you’ll see something pretty different. You’ll see something pretty different. You would see somebody who just kills everybody. You can’t stop me. But right now, I’m being a little easy. I’m not in shape. I’m patient. I’m waiting. I’ll wait my turn.”
World Peace’s constant want to downplay everything stems from a few of things.
He has mostly avoided providing bulletin board material as he has done in seasons past so he doesn’t cast more attention on himself. The Lakers have 19 players on their training camp roster and can hold only up to 15 players before the 2015-16 season begins. World Peace stressed he remains fine with a diminished role, arguing he’s still “so valuable” as a mentor.
“I’m putting aside my ego. I can help the guys win,” World Peace said. “Even when I’m not on the floor, I can still help the guys win. I don’t need to play to be effective. I’ve been effective without the ball my whole career. If I’m on the court I don’t need to have the ball. If I’m not on the court, I can be just as effective. It’s all a part of being a supportive teammate.”
World Peace also experienced humbling experiences with the Sichuan Blue Whales in China and Pallacanestro Cantu in Italy.
Yet, World Peace maintained he preferred taking that path to prove to himself that his diminished statistics stemmed more from sacrificing on NBA teams than any erosion of skills. So much that World Peace said he turned down a chance to sign with the Clippers during the 2014-15 season.
“In China, I had to get my game back,” World Peace said. “Doc [Rivers] asked me to come to the Clippers. I told him, ‘I’m going to China first. When I come back, I’ll come to the Clippers.’ I want to get my game back on.”
But World Peace said his sentiments soon changed. He began reflecting on the Lakers’ failed title runs. Dallas denied the Lakers’ chance to three-peat in 2011 with a four-game sweep in the Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers fell to Oklahoma City in the same round in five games the following year. Despite making a splash with the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard signings, the Lakers were swept in the first round to San Antonio in 2013 amid competing coach and player agendas as well as overlapping injuries.
So when Bryant and World Peace talked when he was overseas about the Lakers and his own play, World Peace thought about a reunion. He said he never told Bryant of his plans, or asked for his support. Instead, World Peace and his agent had conversations with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak about his affection for the franchise.
“For two years, I have said I want to be ready for Kobe. Kobe wants to win. That’s it. It’s simple. If you can’t help him win, you can’t help him. That’s all he wants,” World Peace said. “It’s easy. I wanted to come to the Lakers to get the 17th [NBA title] and surpass the Celtics. That’s something I want to see.”
That goal might sound like nothing more than a pipe dream. But then again, so was the idea that the 35-year-old World Peace would enter a preseason game and quickly address any doubts about his health and effectiveness. He immediately chased both a looseball and his quest to stay in the NBA as Bryant closely watched every step.