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Kobe Bryant starts his 20th season surrounded by new-era Lakers players

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is hopeful for a return to game action to start the regular season on Wednesday.

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is hopeful for a return to game action to start the regular season on Wednesday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Kobe Bryant knows what everyone is thinking.

“I’m just an old, average player,” he said, his voice coated in sarcasm as he spoke to reporters Tuesday.

Bryant’s back, ready or not. This will be the 20th NBA season for a 37-year-old with a reduced role, if you believe him.

On one hand, he says, this game is for the kids now, cognizant that 19-year-old D’Angelo Russell and 23-year-old Jordan Clarkson are the Lakers’ backcourt of the future. On the other hand, he gets rankled by meaningless player rankings, ESPN drawing a frown and more sarcasm from Bryant after calling him the NBA’s 93rd-best player this season.

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Which Bryant will show up Wednesday in the season opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves? Tough to tell.

He already dealt with an injury in exhibition play, sitting out almost two weeks because of a bruised lower leg. His minutes will drop from 34.5 a game last season to about 30 (the actual number hasn’t been disclosed), and his ball-handling opportunities will also slide downward.

“I can count on one hand the number of screen-[and]-rolls that I’ve done, which is a drastic difference [from] the past,” Bryant said. “D’Angelo and Jordan are going to handle the ball 90% of the time. My role in that regard has changed a great deal.”

But Bryant will have to balance his desire to dominate with the challenges of a very young Lakers’ nucleus that also includes 20-year-old Julius Randle.

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He deferred when asked whether this was a playoff team, probably a wise move coming off a 21-61 season that was the worst in the franchise’s 67 years. The Lakers have never missed the playoffs three consecutive years, but it could easily happen in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference.

“It all depends on the learning curve,” Bryant said. “Once you get out there and you start playing and you have to travel and you get into the road, just kind of work through the nuances of the schedule, that’s when you really learn. So it’s just a matter of how quickly you figure those things out.”

Randle was strong in exhibition play and Clarkson looked even better, but Russell might not start against Minnesota.

Lakers Coach Byron Scott is still debating what to do with the second overall draft pick. He recently had a talk with Russell that involved the need to work harder on defense and also the little things, including rebounding.

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“These last three practices were pretty good,” Scott said. “I thought he played with much more energy and was more aggressive.”

If Russell doesn’t start, exhibition-season sensation Marcelo Huertas could get the nod. Or Bryant could move from small forward to shooting guard and allow Scott to insert defensive-minded rookie Anthony Brown in the starting lineup.

Rivalry in waiting?

The NBA did this on purpose, pitting the top pick in the draft against the No. 2 pick on opening night.

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But Russell and Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns aren’t going to fall for the “rivalry” talk. The only talk they’ll do Wednesday is with each other. Like they often do.

“We talk all the time,” Russell said. “I know what he’s going through, he knows what I’m going through over here. It’s just a learning curve for both of us. We talk about our struggles, what we’re doing good. It’s cool.”

The end of the awkward phase might be near for Russell, who has tried not to consider opponents as former idols. He already played against Stephen Curry, a direct influence on how he patterned his game. The next few days brings the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio and Sacramento’s Rajon Rondo.

“Going against these dudes pre-season, it was a challenge,” Russell said. “That first go-round where you see these new faces, you might be star-struck or look at it like, ‘I’ve been watching these guys for a while now,’ so you don’t really know how to approach it until you get on the floor.”

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Coming up roses

In a new marketing twist involving an old event, the Lakers will be part of the 127th Rose Parade on New Year’s Day.

They paid to create and oversee a float called “Every Second is an Adventure,” which will include oversized jerseys of 10 Lakers standouts (including Bryant) and a giant basketball hoop with 16 stars orbiting it, signifying the number of championships the team won.

“Our entry into the Rose Parade is the first of its kind for an NBA team, and we’re looking forward to joining the spirited festivities,” Lakers President Jeanie Buss said in a statement.

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More than 20,000 carnations and roses will be used on the float, which will be 55 feet long and 30 feet high, the team said.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

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