On one side of the floor, a man worked silently on a deadly fadeaway jumper on the blocks with beads of sweat dripping down his face past a deep scowl. His extreme focus was the only emotion one could draw from the lack of facial expressions just moments from tipoff. This type of pregame warm-up is usually reserved for Game 7 of the NBA Finals but on this night, Kobe Bryant was preparing for game No. 62 in what figures to be another title run for the two-time defending champs.
Directly across the court stood a bright-eyed 23-year old overflowing with excitement to square off against the greatest NBA player over the last decade. For Wolves rookie Wes Johnson, the encounter was a stark contrast to a relationship that began prior to the 2010-11 season. During this home clash between the Wolves and Lakers, Bryant played the role of foe and his clear objective was to demolish Minnesota on its home floor, regardless of any bond created this past summer.
Flashback to last spring as Bryant chased his second consecutive championship and fifth overall in the 2010 Finals. Meanwhile, Johnson spent time in Los Angeles for a predraft workout, which allowed the first meeting to take place. After the Lakers glorious title victory over the hated Celtics, Bryant began offseason work prior to a scheduled surgery. Johnson's brother sparked the idea for the former Syracuse standout to contact Bryant, considering both players share the same agent, Rob Pelinka, who helped bridge the gap. The prolific Lakers shooting guard called Johnson to meet up on a summer day in Los Angeles and the professor-student relationship formed.
"It's great, it's a blessing," Johnson smiled. "He really was one of my favorite players to watch growing up and he's the best player, so I can't even put in words how it speaks volume to him just looking after me, just giving me his advice and his own opinion of stuff I need to work on, and just him watching me. I just really appreciate it."
In 1996, a flashy 18-year old Bryant sported aviator sun glasses to announce his decision to jump from high school right into the NBA while a nine-year old Johnson watched from afar. Early in his career, Bryant was labeled an aloof and cocky youngster that was so hard pressed to become the next Michael Jordan, he alienated coaches and teammates. The validity of those reports has been hotly debated by the analysts throughout his remarkable 15-year career. Now at the ripe age of 32, a more mature Bryant is the established leader for his own squad and eager to share his incredible wealth of basketball knowledge to a new crop of rising NBA stars.
The normally stoic "Gameday Bryant" let down his guard at the 2011 All-Star practice when timberwolves.com inquired about Johnson, "Wes is a very talented young player and you know I spent a little bit of time with him after he got drafted and also over in London, and I think he has a lot of potential."
Bryant explained his role as Obi-Wan Kobe with the young Wolves Jedi apprentice during the Lakers final trip to the Target Center this season, "He's extremely talented. He has the length, he has the athletic ability and the willingness to learn and improve, and when I see that, I mean you can't help but want to try to help them be better basketball player. Now I just have to get him in some Nikes...it would be fun."
At this point in his rookie year, Johnson is a blank canvas and sifting the mind of a supremely gifted basketball prodigy. Physically, Johnson stands about an inch taller than the two-time Finals MVP with an exceptional vertical leap similar to the 1997 version of Bryant and a solid base to excel at the NBA level. In order for last year's No. 4 overall pick to become a franchise type of player, he must learn all the mental parameters of the game and that is exactly why he sought guidance from the Black Mamba.
"I'm really just trying to learn everything he says. He's been playing out his whole career and he knows the little tricks and everything he tells me The even-keeled Johnson developed a comfort level with Bryant throughout his summer workout sessions and started to understand the thick barrier that separates the relationship when the two players are on opposite sides of the floor. In the final meeting between the Lakers and Wolves on March 18, the rookie constructed a career performance, scoring 29 points in 37 minutes while Bryant was limited to just 18 points.
“That’s what you want; you want to go against the best. Playing against him, it brings out the best in a lot of people," Johnson said after the contest. "It’s definitely good coming out here and playing against him, I really wanted to go out there.”
Aside from the obvious basketball abilities Bryant displays on a nightly basis, there is one attribute that stands out in Johnson's mind, "His killer instinct. I think his whole tenacity coming into the game - I think that's what stands out to everybody."
Similar to most rookies, Johnson's productivity moves up and down like a roller coaster. His mom would like to see the Texas native exude the mental attitude of his mentor, "She really wants to see me get back to my old ways, out there yelling and in somebody's face, but I just got back to this at home Wes, relaxed and she said she wants to see the other Wes come out. It will soon enough."
Both Johnson and Bryant agree the mentorship will continue for years to come as the bright lights begin to fade for the future Hall of Famer and the Wolves rookie reaches for superstardom.I'm trying to soak it up," Johnson stated.
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