After 8 Months Away, Kobe Bryant's Rusty Return Hardly a Shock

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 9, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts as he grabs a rebound during the first half against the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on December 8, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

In the coming weeks and months, there'll be plenty of time to panic about Kobe Bryant

For now, though, it's probably best not to overreact to his unimpressive return against the Toronto Raptors.

Really, the fact that Bryant is back at all is pretty remarkable on its own. There's no precedent for a 35-year-old star with over 45,000 regular-season minutes coming back from a torn Achilles. So in that sense, Bryant rewrote history by merely stepping back onto the floor Sunday night.

Despite the electricity that accompanied Kobe's comeback, the Lakers didn't have enough to fend off the Raptors, who might have been riding pretty high themselves after Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported before the game that Rudy Gay and his shot-happy ways were headed to the Sacramento Kings in a seven-player deal.

If the Raptors' 106-94 win is any indication, it appears that Gay's departure served as a bigger emotional lift than Bryant's return.

There were some good signs from Kobe, though.

Right from the get-go, Bryant did away with any concerns that he'd come back in full-on "Hero" mode. Instead of taking control of the offense, he did his best to fit into it. Kobe moved the ball, sought out open players whenever he forced the defense to shift toward him, and generally did his best not to upset the Lakers' excellent offensive chemistry.

It would have been easy to imagine Bryant making his return all about himself. I mean, after seeing that ridiculous, self-aggrandizing Facebook announcement, it's not like "understated" was among the adjectives most likely to describe his return.

But Bryant largely played it cool, content to do what he could while trying to keep everyone else on the roster happy. Of course, it bears mentioning that part of the reason Kobe may have been so deferential was because he simply lacked the physical ability to be more aggressive.

Though he dunked rather comfortably during warmups, Bryant clearly didn't have the kind of lift we're used to seeing during games. It's not like anybody was expecting to see flashes of the 1998 version of Bryant that routinely scraped the rafters on his forays to the rim, though. Anything approaching the bounce he showed last season would have been fine.

But Bryant's explosion just wasn't there, and his ground-bound status led to a surprising result on a turnaround to end the first half.

Even before that, Bryant's limited athleticism was on display. His very first basket was a veritable masterpiece of "old man" hoops, as he pump-faked repeatedly on the left block before flipping in a left-handed bank shot to avoid the defender he'd pinned to his right hip.

Kobe's lack of lift wasn't the only notable sign of rust, though. He also had some rather striking issues with timing and decision-making, particularly on his passes. Bryant repeatedly forced the issue when passing lanes were clearly closed, and he struggled to retain his grip on the ball in traffic.

All in all, his eight turnovers stood out most on a stat sheet that also included nine points, eight rebounds and four assists. In typical circumstances, there's not really a logical way to put a positive spin on an eight-turnover game. But, as we've mentioned, the circumstances of Bryant's return are hardly typical.

The guy hadn't played in an organized basketball game for eight months. Instead of keeping his timing and feel sharpened with offseason workouts, scrimmages or preseason games, Bryant was literally grappling with his basketball mortality.

And in a way, the lack of feel and shaky passing are actually good signs for the Lakers star. As far as potential areas of concern go, it's much better that we're talking about his ill-timed passing and rusty instincts than any obvious physical limitations.

Sure, Bryant looked a little slow. And no, he didn't have much explosion. But it's not like he was favoring his left leg, shying away from contact, or having trouble running up and down the floor. Those are legitimate concerns for a player coming off an injury as serious as Bryant's, and the fact that he threw himself into harm's way in an effort to draw charges on a couple of different occasions speaks volumes about how confident he is in his physical sturdiness.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 8: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket during a game against the Toronto Raptors on December 8, 2013 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Bryant wasn't afraid, and that's half the battle in returning from a non-contact injury. If rust is really his only problem—and it's far too early to assume it's anything else—he's in good shape. After all, the best way to shake off rust is to get in some reps. And reps on the court are the one thing Bryant hasn't really had.

Plus, it's important to remember that highly anticipated returns from serious injuries often proceed like Bryant's did.

Derrick Rose didn't blow the doors off when he shot 4-of-15 and turned the ball over five times in his debut earlier this season. Chauncey Billups scored just seven points on 1-of-5 shooting when he took the court in his first game back from an Achilles tear in 2012.

Dominique Wilkins, ever the exception to the rule when it comes to Achilles recovery, dropped 30 in his first game action after a torn tendon in 1992. But keep in mind that he'd logged about half as many career minutes as Bryant had at that stage of his career.

Look, if you want to think of Bryant's game as reductively as possible, it'd have to be termed a success. Nobody with his combination of age, star stature and enormous minute totals has ever made it back and looked half this good. Kobe played in an NBA game about eight months after shredding his left Achilles tendon. There was no guarantee he'd ever make it back, so a little rust is forgivable.

As time passes, it's possible that "he's just rusty" will lose some of its appeal as an excuse. If we're making the same claims three months from now, it might be time to reconsider things.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts during a 116-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on December 8, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Harry How/Getty Images

But after just 28 minutes, it's far too early to panic over a somewhat disappointing performance from Bryant.

Save the weeping, wailing, rending of garments and gnashing of teeth for later—Kobe's just a little rusty.