The Incredible Life and Trying Basketball Times of Kobe Bryant, Part 1

Is he the best ever? As Bryant heals from yet another injury, it’s a good time to examine the controversial legacy of a true NBA legend.

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At the time, former Lakers great Jerry West was already known as one of the preeminent evaluators of talent. For such accolades to be showered upon a teenager is, for some, beyond the realm of imagination. Bryant would be drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick overall. However, they agreed to trade the pick to the Los Angeles Lakers prior to making the selection. The Hornets would end up getting center Vlade Divac and several draft picks in exchange for Bryant. If only they had known the type of player whose rights they briefly held, would they have balked at the pre-arranged swap?

Some youngsters may not recall, but Kobe Bryant's career, though clearly enchanted from the very start, had its fair share of challenges. Nothing was ever handed to him. He was immediately a boy trying to navigate the politics of men. He started his career backing up three-time NBA All-Star shooting guard and All-NBA defender Eddie Jones, along with hot-shooting combo guard Nick Van Exel. Bryant, only 18 years old at the time, would ask coach Del Harris to feature him in certain sets. Harris would tell Kobe that he simply wasn't more efficient in the post than Shaquille O'Neal, and that he would not even consider such a thing until Bryant was better.

Some spend a lifetime trying to figure out their place in the world; others are born into destiny. The sheer audacity of 18-year-old Kobe to even ask such a thing of a head coach has to be without equal. He seemingly was already aware of what great things were in store for him. Though he didn't get much playing time early on, Bryant practiced like a man possessed. It was clear that he would have to supplant Van Exel and Jones in order to get playing time as a rookie. He would average 15 minutes per game his rookie year. The following season would see Bryant's average minutes per game jump to 26 minutes per game, and his scoring average would more than double from 7.6 to 15.4 points per game during the 1997-1998 NBA season. Jones would start at shooting guard 80 out of 82 games that season.

Kobe would only start one of the 79 games in which he was available to play, but would get the lion's share of minutes at small forward when L.A. went small. While he had not yet completely replaced Jones as the second best Laker on the roster, the writing was as apparent as neon lights in Times Square. This kid was the future and clearly the real deal. He was already cutting into Van Exel's minutes and would swing over to play shooting guard at times. Nick's minutes and shot attempts per game were both down compared to where they were during Kobe's rookie year. While the usually even-keeled Eddie Jones appeared to take Bryant's rapid ascension in stride, Van Exel at times seemed repulsed by the very idea of being supplanted by the young phenom. But it wasn't just Nick; it was Shaq as well.

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