EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- One day after playing 5-on-5 for the first time in nearly seven months, Kobe Bryant returned to Los Angeles Lakers practice Wednesday, experiencing "no setbacks" according to coach Mike D'Antoni.
While the excitement around the team is palpable anticipating when Bryant will progress from practice to appearing in an actual game, D'Antoni is still preaching patience regarding the five-time champion.
"I want to be a little careful because we're going to have a few games before he comes back," D'Antoni said.
Bryant's timeline to return has sped up since first returning to practice over the weekend according to D'Antoni's word choice, at least. On Sunday, the coach said there would still be "a bunch" of games before Bryant was back in the lineup. When asked if D'Antoni was ruling Bryant out for the Lakers' next game Friday against the Golden State Warriors, he replied, "I am. I think."
Why the wiggle room? Well, it is Bryant he was talking about, who has already improved faster than anyone on the team could have imagined up to this point.
"Like I said, I'd be very surprised," D'Antoni said. "But I don't want to say something that I eat my words, but I don't think so."
The Lakers held their media session prior to practice Wednesday, but at the team's annual "All-Access" event hosted by the Los Angeles Sports & Entertainment Commission later that evening, D'Antoni said Bryant wasn't as sharp in his second consecutive day back on the job.
"He's a little rusty," D'Antoni told Lakers play-by-play announcer Bill Macdonald, who was serving as emcee. "I thought the first day looked better than the second day, but that's normal. He'll have a little dip. But if he's not too sore and if he keeps playing, (Bryant will return to game action in) a couple more weeks, three weeks."
Lakers guard Nick Young, one of three active players on the team to take part in the panel discussion along with Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar, gave a glimpse into how Bryant has been playing in practice so far.
"He's been doing a lot of fouling," Young said with a smile. Lakers assistant coach, Kurt Ramis, chimed in afterwards: "That's funny. Kobe calls it defense, Nick calls it fouling. That's what we have to deal with at practice."
Bryant's teammates are curious about when he'll shed the blank practice uniform for his tried and true No. 24 jersey as well.
"We're wondering," said Pau Gasol. "We'd definitely like to have an idea, but I think the more he practices and the better he does on the floor, I think it gives us a feeling that the closer and sooner he's going to return." Are they taking bets like office co-workers in a baby pool trying to pick the date that Bryant will be back?
"No, we are not allowed to gamble," Blake said with a laugh. "I'm sure there's a lot of people who are speculating."
There is far less speculation on D'Antoni's part when it comes to meshing Bryant back into the team when he's able to play.
"He's kind of an easy player to fit in," D'Antoni said. "He's going to do what he does. We know where he likes to get the ball, and we'll go from there."
Before that can happen, D'Antoni says Bryant needs to work on getting back to being "game ready." Meaning?
"Wind, conditioning, timing," D'Antoni said. "There's so many things. He hasn't played since April and it just takes you a little bit. I think he surprised everybody by how he did already, but again, it's a little bit different from practice than a game. It's going to be a little bit of a process. But when he's ready, he'll know it."
Gasol said that he thinks that Bryant has done a lot already to get ready without anybody watching.
"He had to," Gasol said. "He had to be. Otherwise, there's no explanation for him to be able to go from running on a treadmill and on the floor to actually playing 5-on-5. There's certain steps you can't really skip to be able to feel comfortable and effective out there."
Did Bryant purposely work out behind closed doors to plan his big reveal when he finally got back on the floor?
"He's a guy that is 24/7 committed to work and always working out at crazy hours," Gasol said. "That's just who he is and I'm sure he's been able to do a lot of individual work when we haven't been around."
All of the work has gotten things to the point where people are already wondering not just when will Bryant return, but how will the Lakers look when he does.
"Not everything is going to be great or perfect when Kobe steps on the floor," Gasol said. "I think there's still going to be things we're going to have to figure out with him on the floor and how to be most effective as a team and individually continue to be aggressive and continue to produce. Because we can't expect him to do all the work. It's a team game, as we all know, and we can only be successful if we all do our part."
How good can the 5-7 Lakers be with the addition of their 15-time All-Star?
"How good? I don't know. That's yet to be seen," said Blake. "He'll make us a better team on both ends of the floor. But do I know how much better we'll be? I don't know how much better. But, we'll be good."