DENVER — With the games becoming unwatchable with every loss, Lakers fans have played a parlor game in recent years.
Instead of making travel arrangements for the Lakers’ championship parade in Los Angeles, those fans have calculated the likelihood that the Lakers will strike it rich in the NBA draft lottery in May.
With the Lakers nursing only a 3-23 record, all eyes have narrowed in on LSU freshman Ben Simmons, a 6’10 versatile forward that averages 18.7 points, 13.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He also has posted a team-leading 22 steals and 14 blocked shots. That has already sparked considerable attention from one prominent Lakers player.
“He’s a fantastic player,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said on Monday in an NBA-sanctioned conference call with international media. “He obviously has a tremendous amount of potential.”
The Lakers currently have a 19.9 percent chance at the top pick by virtue of having the NBA’s second-worst record. But Bryant’s question marks have less to do with the Lakers’ draft odds and more to do with Simmons’ DNA.
“It’s just a matter of what he wants to take on,” Bryant said. “It’s not about handing over keys and things of that nature. It’s really about the player that’s here. Do you have the attitude that winning championships is your only mission and your only goal? If you don’t win a championship, the season is a failure. If you have that attitude, the city will absolutely love you and you’ll get this team back to playing and winning at a level that it’s accustomed to.”
Bryant also echoed an approach that he has also challenged rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell to take. Even when accounting for inevitable rookie hiccups with the NBA’s talent level, game’s pace, new teammates and new playbook, Bryant downplayed those variables so long as a player’s appetite for self-improvement does not dwindle.
“The key is loving what you do,” Bryant said. “That’s the magic of it man and really loving it. You know you love it when you enjoy the process of it all. If you love getting ready, you love training and you love preparing just as much as you love the end result of winning even more so the end result of winning, then you know you have something truly truly special. That’s something that you can’t teach. That’s something you can’t bring out of a person. You either love that thing or you don’t.”
The Lakers’ fortunes go beyond landing Simmons, though.
How quickly does Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson improve their game? How much will Lakers coach Byron Scott weigh leaning on veteran experience and allowing his young players to play through mistakes? With Bryant’s retirement leaving cap room for two max-level players, how much can the Lakers improve their free agency pitch after missing out for three consecutive offseasons?
“What we do going forward is make smart decisions and make smart choices,” Bryant said. “Build the team. That’s what we have to do. We have to get talent and make smart decisions and smart trades with free agent acquisitions, things of that nature. We have to make smart choices.”
And it’s something Bryant believes will happen.
“The Lakers will continue to represent what they’ve always represented. That is excellence,” Bryant said, referring to the franchise’s 16 NBA championships. “They always stood for that and they always stood for winning championships and that being the most important thing. Magic [Johnson] represented that. I happen to represent that. The next player will represent that as well. I don’t see that changing much at all. We all go through rebuilding and things of that nature. But the core of the organization and franchise will always be the same, which is winning.”