LOS ANGELES (AP) D'Angelo Russell's first NBA season also might be Kobe Bryant's last. Even before they've played their first real game together, the teenager and the veteran both were grateful their careers intersected with the Los Angeles Lakers.
''Just to be around a guy that's done what he's done, you can't help becoming a better player and a better person,'' said Russell, the second overall pick out of Ohio State.
Russell and Bryant are hoping the upcoming season isn't just a passing of a torch for a once-proud franchise on the hardest of times.
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While NBA champions Bryant and Metta World Peace are back in the purple and gold for perhaps the last time, they'll have at least a season to work with the Lakers' tantalizing young core of Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson.
''It's good to be around them and get that youthful energy,'' the 37-year-old Bryant said. ''I'm excited for them. This is the beginning of their careers and their journey.''
The Lakers aren't expected to make the playoffs after enduring the worst season in a proud franchise's history, going 21-61 under coach Byron Scott last year. But to Bryant, the NBA's third-leading scorer and a five-time champion, returning to the postseason with a team in profound transition would be yet another career highlight and yet another defiance of expectations.
''I wouldn't put any limits on what we can do, because there's a lot of talent on this roster,'' Bryant said.
Despite the low external expectations, the Lakers have assembled an intriguing combination of young talent and an experienced supporting cast. Center Roy Hibbert appears to be rejuvenated after his All-Star career stalled in Indiana, while veterans Lou Williams and Brandon Bass should provide support.
But all eyes will be on Russell, the point guard with preternaturally good court vision and tantalizing all-around talent. The Lakers don't say Russell is ready to be an immediate star, but they've banked a good portion of their future on his evolving game.
So far, Bryant is impressed.
''I think he has a lot of ambition,'' Bryant said. ''He wants to be great, and it starts there. Really my responsibility to him is to not lose sight of what's most important, which is the game. That's the heart of it all. Playing in this market, with a lot of different distractions, a lot of criticism or critique that might come his way, it doesn't matter. You just focus on what got you here, and that's playing the game.''
Here are more things to know about the Lakers' upcoming season:
DIRE STRAITS: The 16-time champion Lakers have only missed the playoffs seven times in a franchise history that began in Minneapolis in 1948. They've only missed the playoffs in consecutive years twice, including the past two campaigns. The Lakers have never missed the playoffs in three straight seasons.
GOLDEN JULIUS: Russell's summer-league and preseason performances were uneven, but almost nobody is cautious about another first-round draft pick starting his first full NBA season. Randle, the power forward from Kentucky who broke his leg in last year's season opener, is attracting preseason buzz for his recovery and his burgeoning all-around game. Teammates are raving, fans are impressed and opponents are already worried about Randle's combination of athleticism and smarts. While the Lakers ease Russell into the flow, Randle appears ready for the rumble.
CAREFUL: Bryant hopes to stay healthy after his last three seasons ended prematurely due to injuries. To that end, Scott is likely to rest him in certain back-to-back games, along with keeping a cap on his minutes - something Scott promised to do last year, but never really did consistently before Bryant injured his shoulder in January.
RETURN OF THE SWAG: Nick Young is healthy again after injuries limited him to 42 games last season under Scott, who questioned the quirky veteran guard's commitment and defense. Young has been renewed in training camp, even earning praise from Scott - but nearly everybody around the Lakers wonders how long it'll be before Swaggy P reverts to his inimitably strange style.
NO GOODBYES: Bryant hasn't decided whether he'll retire, re-sign with the Lakers or go elsewhere next summer. He doesn't intend to talk about it every week. Although he has repeatedly said in the past that he would never play for another team, Kobe isn't eliminating any possibility as he heads into a season in which he'll consume 37.5 percent of the Lakers' salary cap room with his $25 million deal. ''Hell if I know,'' he said.