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I understand you cannot actually see my face right now, but if you could, you would see that I am smiling. While it is only preseason, the Lakers are back, playing actual basketball that (sort of) matters for the first time since last April. It has been a long time. It has felt like a really, really long time.

The wait is over, though. The Lakers tip off tonight at 7pm PST against the Denver Nuggets*. The game should not be taken too seriously — it is the preseason, after all — but it should be viewed intently. The result may not matter in the big picture, but the process of what this team will become on the floor begins in earnest tonight**. And while that comes with countless caveats — from playing time, to rotations, to the presence of players who will not be on this roster in 4 weeks — I’ll take whatever Lakers’ basketball I can get at this point.

In saying all that, here are a few things worth paying special attention to when the ball tips off:

*Does Kobe look as good when not being defended by his own teammates? Like anyone else who has viewed the clips of Kobe practicing, I have been pleasantly surprised by how he’s looked physically and how well he’s been able to the things that Kobe would normally do on the floor. His post game has looked smooth. His jumper seems to be falling with consistently. His movement with and without the ball has not looked significantly different than I remember from when he was healthy. What needs to be said, though, is that all of this has come in short clips and against defenders who, in reality, are not especially tough match ups for him. No offense to Jordan Clarkson or Wayne Ellington or, even, Nick Young. But none of these guys offer the size or defensive acumen to offer much resistance against Kobe.

Tonight, though, he’ll be facing off against another team with better defenders (hello Arron Afflalo) and doing so in an actual game environment. Needless to say, this is a different test than the one Kobe has been, seemingly, passing with flying colors over the past week of training camp. If he can look as good tonight as he has against his own teammates, it will be further confirmation that he is “feeling like himself”.

*Julius Randle’s overall game. On Saturday the Lakers appeared on NBA TV’s “Real Training Camp” and one of the takeaways from that program was that Julius Randle is both really skilled and prone to getting really tired. Randle flashed a nice face up jumper (something he did not do in the Vegas Summer League), his above average handle, and some nice passing (two things he did show in Vegas). He also get extremely winded during head coach Byron Scott’s conditioning heavy practice, more than once looking out of breath and wanting for an extra couple of minutes of rest as the drills rolled on. This is to be somewhat expected — Randle didn’t do much physical activity at all between finishing his freshman season at Kentucky and when he was drafted and was already a player who could stand to get in better shape as camp approached. Beyond that, Scott’s practices have been heavy handed on the running and conditioning and as a rookie coming into his first camp you would expect there to be some culture shock to how things are done at this level.

In saying all that, I am interested in seeing how Randle plays when the bright lights are finally on and when he has that extra burst of adrenaline from being in game action. I also want to see if his full skill set is on display and what positions he is put in on the floor to use those skills.

*What will the big man rotation look like? Nick Young’s injury has thrown the wing rotation for a loop, but that should not be the case for the bigs. Save for Ryan Kelly, every other big is healthy and how Scott divides the minutes will be something to watch — even if it’s on the preseason. We already know that Boozer and Hill will start, but I’ll be interested in seeing how much burn Randle and Davis get, what combinations of those four (plus Sacre) are put on the floor, and how those pairings play together. Again, what we see tonight shouldn’t be forecasted as what will happen a month from now, but tonight’s action will reflect how Scott sees things early in camp. Hints like this can deepen our analysis and give us some insight we did not have before tonight.

*How much does Nash play and, more important, how does he look when he’s out there? When word came out of Saturday’s practice that Nash “tweaked” his ankle, there was a serious sense of “here we go again” when it comes to the veteran guard’s injury issues. But Nash practiced the next day and said he could have easily participated in Saturday’s evening session. As of now Nash is penciled in as the starter and will be run out there with the first group. I do not expect Nash to play more than 10-15 minutes tonight while Lin and Ronnie Price get heavier workloads. In saying that, though, Nash will see the Nuggets’ first team players and that will give him a nice barometer of where he’s at physically and what stage his game is at. Can he create his own shot? Can he be a semblance of the disruptive offensive player he’s been in the past? Can he get his teammates some open, easy shots? I’ll be very interested in seeing how the 40 year old looks.

*Has Wes Johnson really progressed? I was lukewarm on Wes’ return to the Lakers this summer. After watching Wes for a full season my analysis of his game was pretty simple: he’s a much better athlete than he is a basketball player. He often looked like a player who made up his mind on what he wanted to do early in a play and showed little ability to make the mental adjustments, both within a play and over the course of a game, that define how successful basketball players operate on the court. But Wes spent nearly the entire summer working out with Kobe Bryant, picking #24’s brain and getting schooled on the thinking aspects of the game and ideas like “economy of motion” that are meant to further maximize his physical gifts. People have been looking for Wes to break out since the time he entered the league. And while I think that ship has sailed, it’s not beyond his ability to make marginal improvements around the edges of his game to become a more efficient player than he was last year. Much of that will depend on the mental aspect of the game, however, and I am interested in seeing if he has made strides in that area.

Beyond that, there are many other things to watch — from Jordan Clarkson’s play to how the team is doing defensively to whether or not Ellington and Price impress as much in game action as  they have in practices. We’ll have more on all these topics, and more, in the next day or so.

*If you are in the LA market, you can watch the game on TWC Sportsnet. The game can also be viewed in NBA TV if you are not local.

**Practice, of course, is where all the habits of what this team will play like will actually be formed. That said, when the games come, their execution on the floor together will be forged and built in different ways. I am very interested in seeing how this team plays against opponents not wearing Lakers’ practice jerseys.

Training camp is only two days old, but I’m already thirsting to see what this group of players looks like on the floor together. Luckily, the fine folks at Lakers.com are of the same mindset and were nice enough to gift us all with some highlights from the scrimmage portion of Wednesday’s practice session:

Understand that these are clips pieced together from a lot of stop and go action where the coaches will intervene to use a particular play or two as teaching moments. This may allow an offensive player to get the type of position he may not otherwise or a side’s defense to get set and bottle up a certain action.

Even in saying that, though, it sure is nice to see actual basketball.

A couple of quick takeaways:

*Over the last couple of days, when asked about his health, Kobe Bryant has said that he “feels like (himself)” multiple times and the brief clips seem to reinforce that idea. He’s moving well, seems to get good elevation on his jumper, and made a decent defensive play on Nick Young by sliding his feet fairly well and recovering at the end of the action to get his hands on the ball. He also had  couple of nice possessions working in the post and his footwork looked clean and precise. Again, these are spliced together clips that do not give us an entire picture of what Kobe fully looks like over the course of a full session, but these plays do start to lessen concerns that he is not 100% physically right now. Considering where he was at this point last year and how he looked when he first got back into game action after the season began, this is a very positive thing.

*Steve Nash also looks to be moving well. I do not want to overplay the significance of this since, as we all know, Nash’s problems aren’t so much how he plays when healthy, but whether or not his health is sustainable. But it’s nice to see Nash running fluidly and making some of the plays you know a healthy Nash is capable of making. The fading jumper he hit wasn’t anything to get super excited about, but it did show him extend for a loose ball and then create some needed separation to get his shot off against his man. These are skills Nash has mastered over his career, but also ones that have not always been at his disposal over the past two seasons due to his diminished health.

*Whether it was just the nature of the plays selected to highlight or indicative of what the team will try to do regularly, the team sure did seam to try to push the ball up the floor. Nash and Lin both like to play in the open court, so it would not surprise me if they tried to play with more pace than Scott’s team have been known for in the past. I’m not making any declarations at this point, but this will be something to watch for when the exhibition games start.

Overall, there’s really not a lot of deep analysis to be made here. Again, it’s a scrimmage with a fair amount of stopping the action and specific teaching moments from a coaching staff who is just starting to learn about the group they have (as well as the players learning what the coaches want). But, I’d be lying if I said watching the guys get up and down the floor and finish some plays didn’t get me itching for more.

More than any of the other candidates who could have gotten the Lakers’ head coaching job, Byron Scott will get an extended honeymoon period. While I have expressed my thoughts on more than one occasion about how much Scott’s history as a Laker should matter, the fact is that it does. It mattered to the front office when they made their choice to hire him and it matters to fans now.

More than what matters to fans or Jim Buss or Mitch Kupchak, though, what matters to the players is most important. They’re the ones who will follow Scott into the battle or tune him out. They are the ones who must buy in to what he’s selling in terms of philosophy and then go out on the court and execute his schemes. And of all the players, the one who matters most here is Kobe Bryant. He’s the leader of this team on the floor and if he’s on board the other’s will follow him.

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The wait is over.

THE WAIT IS OVER.

On Monday the Lakers will open training camp, hosting their annual media day. The media masses will come (though fewer than normal, I’m sure) to listen to the players speak on expectations, what they hope to get out of the year, and how they’ve put on 15 pounds of muscle (or, in some cases, lost 15 pounds). They’ll gather to hear new coach Byron Scott talk in reserved, yet optimistic tones, about where he thinks this team will go and how he believes they can surprise people by defying expectations. Everyone — especially Kobe — will talk about the work to be done and growing as a team and we will soak it all in because we have been waiting for what feels like an eternity for basketball to come back.

In reality, though, this is the least interesting part of what is beginning. Most every player has been through this multiple times and knows the drill. Nothing — or at least very little — of substance will be said. The more important thing is that the work will begin and this team will take its first steps towards becoming…whatever it is they will become. We all have our opinions on that, of course, but even what I (or you or anyone else) predicts ends up being 100% accurate, it will all have to play out on the floor with the players trying to follow what the coaches tell them to do.

Even in saying all that, the story lines heading into camp are many and real. So, let’s look at 10 questions for this team at the dawn of this new campaign:

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Yes, it has been a long summer but the wait is almost over. Training camp is nearly here and the Lakers will soon hit the court, trying to absorb Byron Scott’s schemes while learning each other. Just like the last two seasons, the roster has turned over by half and that type of change takes time to adjust to. Two of those changes have occurred this week when the Lakers signed two guards to help on the wing and provide a roster in transition more veteran players who will challenge for minutes on the perimeter.

The first player added is Wayne Ellington, a 5 year pro out of the University of North Carolina. His Tarheel roots probably helped him get a contract from Mitch Kupchak, but what likely aided him more was the half a season he spent in Cleveland playing under Byron Scott. In those 37 games Ellington played over 25 minutes a night and put up double digit points on on 44% shooting from the floor. This stretch should not be glorified as some extreme run of great play, but it does constitute the best stretch of Ellington’s career even if his three point shot was not falling at his normal accuracy.

That last point is most important. Over his 5 year career, Ellington shot over 39% from deep in 4 of those seasons. His career mark of 38.6% from behind the arc is well above the league average and would make him the Lakers’ best shooter from deep should he find his way to the final roster. What the Lakers are surely hoping, then, is that Ellington finds his range from deep while also being able to duplicate the 49% shooting from 2 point range that he did in that half season in Cleveland. That level of play would be very close to what Jodie Meeks provided last season (40% from 3, 51% from inside the arc). Of course, I’m sure the Mavericks were hoping the same thing last season, but Ellington never found his way into Rick Carlisle’s rotation managing to only appear in 46 games while playing less than 10 minutes a night. In other words, while the skill is seemingly there it remains to be seen if he can earn a role on this team. Even if Scott knows what he’s capable of.

The other key signing is Ronnie Price, whom the Lakers inked to a contract on Wednesday. Price came into the league in 2005 and has bounced around the league, spending time in Sacramento, Utah, Portland, Phoenix, and Orlando. For his career, Price has mostly been a 2nd or 3rd string point guard who saw minutes due to his competitiveness and willingness to play hard. His statistics will not wow you — he’s a career 38% shooter while hitting less than 30% of his shots from deep — and hasn’t really proven to be a guard who can create for others or himself offensively.

He will play hard, however, and that is fine if he’s your insurance guard who will clearly be below Lin and Nash on the depth chart. If I had my way, he’d also be behind Clarkson as I do believe the rookie guard should get chances to see game action and be put on a track of development this year. Whether Scott agrees with this remains to be seen, but Price’s veteran status and willingness to mix it up with any opponent will surely earn him his coach’s respect. That said, as much as playing hard is a skill, Price doesn’t have many others beyond that and while I’d have no qualms if he made the final roster I would start to question things if his presence negatively impacted that of other guards (namely, Clarkson) in the process.

Also worth mentioning is that signing both Price and Ellington brings the Lakers’ roster to 15. And while they also added 4 more players on Wednesday (brining the roster to 19 players), those guys are essentially camp invites who have little chance of making the team. Ellington and Price, though, look to have a path to being on this roster opening night. I did not expect the Lakers to carry 15 players into the season and that may well change before the first game tips off, but as the roster stands now it looks more and more likely my initial thoughts were incorrect.

We will see how this all plays out, though. Camp will be here very soon and, with it, more information as to how the roster will shape up will be out our disposal. Finally.