After the longest offseason of his career, Kobe Bryant pulled on his familiar gold jersey Monday and went back to work with the Los Angeles Lakers, quietly believing his 19th NBA season will be better than almost anybody expects.
"I'm trying to see if I can prove to myself that I can be myself," Bryant said.
The Lakers are full of training-camp optimism about their superstar guard's prospects of recovery from serious injury. Bryant is walking confidently on his left leg, and he's already running and jumping better than new coach Byron Scott imagined would be possible on a surgically repaired Achilles tendon and the once-broken bone near his knee.
Bryant is reluctant to make any bold predictions about his return from the injuries that limited him to six December games last season, which happened to be the Lakers' worst campaign since they moved to Los Angeles in 1960. The five-time NBA champion seems determined to focus on pacing his recovery, knowing the Lakers need him healthy all season long to have any chance of a playoff return.
"It's a tough injury. I'm not going to lie," Bryant said. "A lot of things go through your mind when something like that happens. I just went on my grind and just chipped away at it, day by day."
The Lakers' hopes are hinging on Bryant's health, and he spent all summer at the gym in El Segundo or Orange County, gradually bringing his leg back to full strength. The club signed Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million contract last season, investing a huge chunk of its payroll through 2016 in a 36-year-old player who is now trying to come back from two major injuries.
Scott has watched Kobe's evolution closely for 18 years, and he isn't shy about predicting a major return for his former Lakers teammate back in 1996.
"I'm expecting him to play 82 games, and play well," Scott said. "He's a guy that's going to still probably have his 23, 24 points per game. Our biggest thing is making sure that he stays healthy and keeping his minutes to a minimum where he can play his 82 games."
Los Angeles' roster went through a minor overhaul, but many contributors to last season's 27-55 team are back after the Lakers failed to land any big-name free agents. Pau Gasol also left his longtime teammate, heading to Chicago as a free agent.
"I like the fact that almost everybody has written us off," Scott said. "That's a motivational factor that we can use to play every single night. I think we're going to surprise some people. I hope a lot of our guys feel slighted by all this."
Steve Nash, Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson all returned after a miserable campaign largely notable for a league-worst 319 games lost to injury. Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer are the Lakers' top additions, and both newcomers are eager to revitalize their careers as role players alongside Bryant.
"I think we have a lot of guys that have been kind of discarded or forgotten, a bunch of players who a couple of teams really felt they had no use for," Bryant said. "So we have that attitude built into us."
Scott has a specific number of minutes in mind for Bryant and Nash, but won't share it. He's still determining whether to hold out the older guards in the second game of back-to-back sets, but they're unlikely to participate in both workouts when the Lakers hold two-a-day practices in camp.
Nash also feels revitalized from the long offseason after nerve problems in his back and left leg limited him to 15 games last season, but the former MVP point guard shares Bryant's desire for longevity this season.
Bryant insists he won't mind if Scott limits his minutes this season, which still comes as a bit of a surprise to fans used to Kobe's relentless drive to overcome any obstacle — even age.
"As you get older, you have to accept some things that you can and can't do," Bryant said. "I don't see it being much of an issue."