Six games. That is the number of games Kobe Bryant played during the 2013-14 NBA season. Six games. That is the number of games Bryant has played during the 2014-15 season. Without a doubt, he's not the same player he was a year ago, and that is a compliment to how great Bryant has looked for the Los Angeles Lakers in this young NBA season.
"I never really did notice him change his game," Lakers coach Byron Scott said about Bryant when recently asked how he'd seen Bryant adjust his game. "I think this year, everybody said, 'you know, he's going to have to change his game.'"
Bryant looks better than most anyone thought he would. Being 36-years old and recovering from a debilitating Achilles rupture and a fracture in his knee, Bryant was expected to look slower and older. He was meant to adjust his game for his newfound lack of mobility and explosiveness.
A year ago, Bryant did just that.
Coming off a major injury and joining a team that was already a couple months into the season, the 2013-14 version of Bryant struggled to feel out his limitations and adapt to his battered aging body. A year later, Bryant looks a year younger. The 2014-15 version looks comfortable on the court, and he is strikingly similar to the player that existed prior to the Achilles injury.
Numerically speaking, in the six games Bryant played during the 2013-14 season, the 35-year-old shooting guard attempted only 73 shots and averaged only 13.8 points per game. The 36-year-old Bryant has attempted nearly twice as many shots, 142, and is averaging nearly twice as many points per game, 26.5, despite playing in the exact same number of games, six.
"I think now, he even sees, he still has 'it,'" Scott said his early training camp discussions with Bryant to focus on the post and positioning closer to the basket were no longer relevant. "He's far from being done--like a lot of people thought."
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While the short-lived 2013 return provided a glimpse into how the Black Mamba could warp his game to lengthen his career when he inevitably loses his quickness, the 2014 product has provided proof that his game need not be adjusted just yet.
In his final appearance of the 2013-14 season, the Lakers beat the Memphis Grizzlies on the road. Bryant felt most comfortable in his new found role. He shot 50 percent from the field, only took 18 shots and added five assists and four rebounds to his 21 points. He picked his spots and played a crucial role down the game-winning stretch.
Fast forward 11 months, and Bryant is back to attacking with reckless aggression and crazed determination. Limitations are not in his vocabulary, and even age does not appear to be slowing down the player closer to 40 years than 30 years.
In one of his quietest performances of the young season, Bryant scored 21 points on 20 shots in the Lakers' victory on Sunday. On the heels of a 39-point performance, Bryant dropped to no. 2 in the NBA’s scoring race due to the only scoring 21 points.
To put this in perspective, Bryant never once topped the 21-point mark in his six-game cameo in 2013. In 2014, Bryant has only once failed to hit the 21-point mark, and that instance came on the Lakers’ season opener when he scored 19 points and sat for a significant portion of the fourth quarter.
With a smile, Scott added, "Right now, people around the league are saying, 'he's got a lot of juice left.'"