Yes, it was only one game. And yes, it’s too early to draw any lasting conclusions after this single game. But the Lakers showed some positive signs in their first preseason game, defeating the Nuggets 98-95 in an entertaining, if sometimes sloppy, affair.

In all honesty, there wasn’t a single thing that stood out most to me. Yes, Kobe Byrant looked very good. While his 5-12 shooting night doesn’t look great, at least two of those shots were taken with the clock winding down and from a disadvantageous position. And while his first jumper was an airball, he quickly found his stride thereafter, hitting several nice jumpers including a couple of his muscle-memory fading J’s from the baseline that we’ve seen so often over the course of his career:

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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.

The injury bug still hasn’t left the Lakers organization. Following consecutive seasons that saw the Lakers battle myriad injuries to nearly every rotation player, this season has now seen it’s first major injury of the year. Nick Young has a torn ligament in his shooting thumb, according to ESPN’s Arash Markazi.

Lakers guard Nick Young suffered a complete tear of the radial collateral ligament in his right thumb during practice and could be sidelined for the start of the regular season.
Young’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told ESPN.com he expects the injury to sideline the veteran for six to eight weeks.

According to the report, the injury came during Thursday’s practice when Young was defending Kobe Bryant and jammed it trying to swipe the ball from Bryant.

The news is troubling for the Lakers on several levels. Young is coming off the most productive season of his career and was expected to fill a similar role from last season as a scorer off the bench.

While Young’s primary role may not change for the upcoming season, the offensive philosophy will change dramatically. Moving from Mike D’Antoni’s more free wheeling, run-and-gun style, Byron Scott is bringing a version of Eddie Jordan’s Princeton Offense. While the principals of the Princeton aren’t terribly complex, you want guys to find a rhythm on the court at this time of year because of the read-and-react nature of the offense.

Young’s injury also has implications outside of his health to begin the season. Wayne Ellington was the most recent Laker to be signed, and his ability to shoot from three should allow him to see the floor to eat some of Young’s minutes. There’s also the case of rookie Jordan Clarkson, who could be in a prime position to earn some minutes early in the season playing as an off-guard, especially with the timetable for Xavier Henry to return still a bit up in the air.

There’s also the question of what the Lakers will do with their final roster spot. The team currently has 14 men signed on for the season, and can potentially add another before the start of the season. The team’s training camp invitees include a plethora of guards and wings, and the Lakers could make a need-based move instead of a talent-based move to make up for the absence of Young — and Henry — to start the season.

There have been a lot of good things said about Ronnie Price since camp has started, but the Lakers may need a bigger guard who can defend opposing wings.

Lastly, this hurts because Young was going to be the main guy who would help eat some of Kobe’s minutes. This team is a bit better off in this department than in seasons pre-dating the D’Antoni and Mike Brown eras, but losing a guy like young hurts Scott’s ability to be creative with lineups to cut back on Bryant’s.

The positive is that, should Young only miss the eight weeks of expected recovery time, the team will be without his services for only a month, and will have to watch him play into game shape for another couple of weeks.

Scott is going to see what the bench unit is made of without its primary scorer very early on, and should only help the rest of the unit once a guy who can create his own shot is brought back with to the group. While this isn’t the greatest news to receive this early in the season, it’s not necessarily something that will make or break this Lakers season. Let’s just hope Young has a speedy recovery.

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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