Indeed, much like Bryant, Wilkins was a victim of the same injury early in the 1990s. The high-flyer bounced back and performed at a very high level in the ensuing season. Heck, an argument could be made that the perennial All-Star enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career after tearing his Achilles.
Keep in mind, Wilkins’ game was built almost entirely on his jaw-dropping athleticism. He had a knack for getting himself in the lane and leaping over defenders for scores.
He was a fearsome dunker that also found creative ways to get his points. Wilkins used jumpers, put-backs, post-ups and drives to torture opponents.
The Achilles rupture should have robbed him of these skills given its devastating impacts. Most of the evidence submitted on the injury indicates that players become damaged goods after suffering it. Typically, athletes fail to regain their form, or they simply retire.
Wilkins is the outlier in all of this. Thus, it stands to reason that Bryant and his doctors should study and perhaps even engage the retired star in an effort to pick his brain on his recovery. Wilkins was 32 years old at the time of his tear, whereas Bryant is a 34-year-old superstar duking out a few rounds with Father Time.
Considering the Los Angeles Lakers’ all-time leading scorer was older at the time of his physical setback, one cannot expect him to return with the same level of athleticism of his counterpart. However, the two-time Finals MVP has adjusted his game over the years in anticipation of the decline of his physical gifts.
Thus, Bryant does not need to return jumping higher than ever like, say, Derrick Rose, rather he merely requires a physical fitness comparable to what he enjoyed in 2012-13.
Oddly enough, the five-time champion’s resolve and work ethic have become almost mythical in nature, which in turn causes many to believe Bryant will come back better than ever.
Given that Wilkins has already provided the blueprint for a full recovery, there is certainly a more than realistic possibility that the former league MVP will follow in his footsteps.
It will just take a whole lot of time.
Bryant’s initial target date for a return was the start of the 2013-14 campaign (basically six months after the Achilles tear), but he has since been ruled out of the Lakers opener. The four-time All-Star Game MVP set a goal that was perhaps too aggressive.
Wilkins needed nine months of rehab time and the results speak for themselves. He had the second-best PER figure of his career on his way to averaging 29.9 points per game.
But again, time was of the essence, and the former Hawk was quick to point that out to Sam Amick of USA Today when discussing Bryant’s return to action: "It took me nine months to really get back to the form and the level that I once played. He's got to be patient. That's the biggest thing for me. He has to be patient."
The face of the Lakers will have to display an incredible amount of patience in 2013-14 because his body will not cooperate like it has in previous seasons. Should he rush his return, he may very well compromise whatever progress he has a made, which in turn could potentially torpedo his entire season.
This will be the most difficult stretch of Bryant’s career because the end is near. Indeed, The 15-time All-Star stated at the conclusion of the 2012-13 that he planned on playing another three or four years (2:30 mark of video):
This entails trying to maximize his time on the court and rush back to the lineup. Thus, he and his training staff will have to set strict boundaries on his training regimen, otherwise he might push his recovery process to the detriment of his overall health.
Wilkins’ path back to glory certainly provides Bryant with a great model. The five-time champ must simply follow the lead of his predecessor no matter how difficult taking his time may be.
The end result is far too great to ignore Wilkins’ warnings. Indeed, in Wilkins' interview with Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams, the former high-flyer cautioned against the mental blocks caused by the injury:
I didn’t feel [like I could jump the same way once I returned]. I felt like if I jumped too hard or pushed too hard off my ankle, that it would pop again. That was all mental. Once I got through that part, I told myself, You know what? If this thing is going to pop, it’s going to pop. But I’m going to play hard. I’m going to go off of it hard. I felt funny mentally. But physically, it was repaired better than ever. In fact, it was three times stronger than my other Achilles.
Bryant is as talented as they come and unquestionably one of the greatest players the league has ever seen. He will use both the injury and the perceived slights as motivation to regain his previous form.
This was his response when the Lakers were selected by ESPN.com’s panel to finish 12th in the Western Conference standings at the end of the 2013-14:
Following the Wilkins handbook comes with a downside. Wilkins’ game did eventually decline precipitously. He enjoyed two great years of production after the Achilles tear and then his skills went south. To be fair, one can attribute that to his loss of athleticism, which completely changed his game.
One might wonder if the same fate awaits Bryant, but that seems unlikely. He has tailored his moves in the late stages of his career to take advantage of angles and miscues from defenders. Hence, he will always manage to create quality looks at the basket despite the fact that he might lack some lift on his shot attempts.
Therefore, he should avoid some of the pitfalls Wilkins experienced.
As long as Bryant borrows from another legend and mimics some of the steps Wilkins took, he will come back to the hardwood and be as good as ever.