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Teen Idol : Lakers Won’t Treat Kobe Bryant Like an Ordinary Rookie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mister West?

Mister Johnson?

Coach Harris?

The Lakers promised Kobe Bryant won’t be like any 17-year-old you’ve ever seen, but there he was Friday afternoon at an introductory news conference, using formal titles as a polite sign of respect for elders instead of first names, which, come to think of it, maybe does make him different than most teenagers. Not a Jerry or Magic or Del to be heard.

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That could be the end of it, though. Bryant may stop acting his age as soon as today, when he makes his pro debut in a 5 p.m. summer league game against the Detroit Pistons at the Pyramid in Long Beach.

The Lakers figure this will be his first step toward stardom. They say this because grown-ups do homework too.

“He was, by far, the most skilled player we’ve ever worked out,” said West, the executive vice president. “By far.”

“Ever.” “By far.” From someone who has spent 14 years running a team and has three championship rings as proof of an eye for talent.

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So it went for Bryant in his visit to the Forum a day after the Lakers officially acquired his rights from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Vlade Divac. Not a single game of college basketball on his resume, not even 18 years old for another six weeks . . . and not a person to be found lowering the level of expectations for even his rookie season.

“All of us have said that he’s a very, very talented young player,” West said. “Whether or not he plays very much here this year depends on circumstances, situations, how he develops. But he’s not going to embarrass himself even at this age against these players. He’s not going to do it.

“This is not a 17-year-old kid. Period.”

Exclamation point:

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“If you want me to start talking about him,” Harris said, “you’d think I was talking about Clark Kent.”

No. Boy Wonder.

It’s not just the Lakers, either. Lionel Simmons arrived at training camp last fall raving about how this kid was able to hold his own with NBA players during the summer pickup games in Philadelphia. Then Simmons went back to work with the Sacramento Kings and Bryant went to the 12th grade.

More recently, the Ardmore, Pa., phenom, having decided to make the jump from high school to the pros despite talent and grades that would have made any alumni and chancellor happy, clearly outplayed Dontae’ Jones during a pre-draft workout for the Lakers. This would be the same Dontae’ Jones who a couple months earlier was named most valuable player of the Southeast Regional in helping Mississippi State to the Final Four and eventually was selected 21st by the New York Knicks.

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Even more recently, Johnson saw him play in pickup games at Pauley Pavilion that also included several pros, then came back with glowing praise. Sorry--Mr. Johnson.

Bryant? Given the chance to lower the bar, he also passed. Keep the expectations right where they are.

“I need to live up to my own expectations,” said Bryant, who is not expected to sign a contract until the Lakers conclude their free-agent business. “I’m going to work extremely hard this summer to try to prepare myself for those situations and try to please the people of L.A. I don’t want them to think I’m just a high school kid coming in here thinking the world owes me something. I’m going to go out there and I’m going to work because I chose to work.

“That’s something I want people to think about me in the city of L.A. I want them to think I’m a blue-collar basketball player and a blue-collar person and I want to get out there and work hard night in and night out.”

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Blue collar in work ethic, maybe. In play, never.

The added allure of Bryant is not only that he has all this potential, but that it comes with glitter falling off his body as he swoops to the basket. He’s about 6 feet 5 and 200 pounds, making him a little shorter but slightly heavier than new teammate Eddie Jones, another participant in the Philly summer games, and may play at small forward and both guard spots.

He has shown the ability to score from all over, despite early reports that the jumper was suspect. He can handle the ball. He is, by all indications, mature beyond his 17 years, so the Lakers are not expecting the transition to the pros to be difficult. He can wow them. He already has.

“We think this young man is really one of the most exciting young prospects we’ve seen in a long time,” West said.

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And one they hope to see for a long time.


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