PHOENIX -- Metta World Peace couldn't hide his ear-to-ear grin.
"I bet people thought I was gone," the Los Angeles Lakers forward recently told ESPN.com following a string of strong performances during an East Coast road trip. "But I think now, people know I'm back. I think now, you've got to mention me in your shoot-around plan."
It marked the third time this season that World Peace has started in place of Kobe Bryant, who sat out to rest, and it marked another game in which World Peace has been one of the Lakers' lone bright spots.
But if anyone believed World Peace was gone, they were right.
Last season, the 15-year NBA veteran wasn't just out of the league, he was of the country, playing professionally in China and Italy after a 29-game stint two years ago with the New York Knicks.
In the summer, World Peace would work out against other NBA players, and they'd tell him, "Can you play on my team?"
"Call your general manager," World Peace would say.
He stayed in shape, but reviving his NBA career wasn't a given.
"I wasn't expecting a call from anybody, to tell you the truth," he said.
But then World Peace, who turned 36 last week, received a call from the Lakers, the team he played for from 2009-2013 and won a championship with in 2010.
He soon found himself spending much of this past summer at the team's practice facility in El Segundo, California, where he regularly worked with sophomore forward Julius Randle.
After that, World Peace received an invitation to training camp in Honolulu. The Lakers hoped his experience would be invaluable to their promising youth, but in terms of his on-court production, there were plenty of question marks.
"I was real leery that he was even going to be able to get through training camp and everything," Lakers coach Byron Scott said.
Those concerns disappeared almost instantly, as World Peace's defensive intensity changed the tenor of several preseason games.
"Very impressed," Kobe Bryant said after one game.
World Peace made the regular-season roster, an eyebrow-raising move to some because of his age but nonetheless widely celebrated by Lakers fans thrilled to see one of the team's most beloved players donning purple and gold once again.
After spending the first four games of this season on the bench, watching the Lakers' defense get shredded, World Peace finally got another chance to shine. The New York native fittingly made his season debut in Brooklyn against the Nets -- and he made his presence known. Immediately.
He moved like electricity across the court, invading offensive players' air space, harassing anything that moved, forcing contested shots, clogging passing lanes, all the things that led him to earn NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2003-04. At one point during the game, Bryant leaned over to Randle and remarked, "Imagine him at 22."
World Peace smiled at the thought.
"At 22, it was bad for people," he said. "But I can still cause some problems."
"He's an animal," Randle said.
Though plenty of time has passed, World Peace looked more like his old self than not, and when Bryant checked in for World Peace late in that Brooklyn game, the Lakers' first win of the season, Bryant nodded his head, beat on his teammate's chest and the two lone Lakers remaining from the 2010 title squad shared a long embrace.
"Metta did a great job changing the tempo of the game," Bryant said. "He was everywhere."
A couple days later, World Peace did it again against the Knicks. Then with Bryant out because of a sore back, World Peace started for the first time in nearly two years in each of the next two games after that, continuing to shine on both ends.
"[World Peace] is playing as well as anybody on their team right now," said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who coached World Peace -- then known as Ron Artest -- with the Indiana Pacers.
"I knew [during offseason workouts] that he wasn't moving as fast as he used to, but his hands are unbelievable. His instincts are great. He knows where the ball is going. He's already on a string and already involved on that end of the floor. He's just great. His intensity level is unbelievable." Byron Scott
"The guy's a machine. He's always been a real high-level player. He's in great condition. That's clear to see. He's ready to go, man. He's ready to go. He's a big factor at both ends of the floor."
Scott saw World Peace work out plenty for the past four or five months, so he hasn't been too surprised.
"I knew then that he wasn't moving as fast as he used to, but his hands are unbelievable," Scott said. "His instincts are great. He knows where the ball is going. He's already on a string and already involved on that end of the floor. He's just great. His intensity level is unbelievable."
Like opposing coaches and Lakers teammates alike, Scott is in awe of how World Peace still covers so much ground.
"I didn't expect him to be that active," Scott said.
But maybe the least impressed person of all is World Peace himself.
"I look at myself in a very high regard," he said. "I can see what could've been there."
"I could've been in the Hall of Fame," he said.
World Peace doesn't believe that will happen, though, not after a career that saw him bounce around six different teams, often for one not-so-pleasant reason or another.
"If I would've been a more stable player ..." he said.
Then he referenced the Chicago Bulls, with whom he spent his first three seasons, averaging 12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
Had he been more stable, he continued, he believes he would have spent his whole career in Chicago, and World Peace then says the same of other NBA teams he played for, such as the Indiana Pacers.
There were too many flagrant fouls, though. He was, he admits, "dysfunctional in the locker room." And, of course, he was at the center of the 2004 "Malice at the Palace" brawl against the Detroit Pistons when he played for the Pacers, a reputation-staining incident that he'll almost certainly never shake.
For as good as he was, World Peace was just as volatile and, as a result, he never played with any team longer than five years.
"I had to play on other people's teams so my average went down, my stats went down, less All-Stars, less All-Defensive teams," he said.
He thinks back to the seasons in which he thrived not only on defense but on offense as well, averaging 24.6 points with the Pacers in 2004-05, or 20.5 with the Sacramento Kings in 2007-08.
With the Houston Rockets in 2008-09, World Peace averaged 17.1 points, but that number dropped to 11.1 when he joined the Lakers a season later.
"I was averaging 22 points against the Lakers. I can't average 20 now? But now I'm on a team with Kobe. ... That's called sacrifice," World Peace told ESPN. "After Houston, my individual career was pretty much done, because I'm with Kobe."
As World Peace later said before his team's loss in Phoenix, "I felt like I wasn't getting the credit that people should've gave me for sacrificing. Nobody ever really talked about that, so it was frustrating. ... I kind of went to China just to prove that I could score the ball. ... It's hard to adjust to your mind to be a role player."
He's averaging 11.7 points in three starts this season and is averaging 7.3 points and 2.4 rebounds overall this season.
In the future, World Peace may try to prove that he can excel as a coach. He is considering it.
"I think he'll be an excellent coach," Carlisle said. "He's got an unbelievable passion for the game and Ronnie's a guy who loves helping people. He's a very warm-hearted guy beyond what you see as a competitor.
"I think [World Peace] will be an excellent coach. He's got an unbelievable passion for the game and Ronnie's a guy who loves helping people. He's a very warm-hearted guy beyond what you see as a competitor." Rick Carlisle
"He's been in touch with me the last couple years, checking in and wanting to get together and talk basketball. We haven't been able to work it out logistically yet, but I'm looking forward to it."
But, for now, World Peace is at peace with life and his career. He still shows shades of his old self, though without the volatile side that often resulted in him changing teams so often. Instead, he raises money for charity, specifically to raise mental health awareness.
The Lakers may be in the midst of a lost season, but it's a season of redemption for World Peace. He has resurrected his career, going from out of the league a season ago to becoming a part-time starter for the Lakers in 2015-16.
"I just want to be there in the end," he said.
He stretches for 30 minutes before game whereas he stretched for maybe five earlier in his career. He eats well. He cheers on his teammates at every turn and pulls young players aside constantly.
"I ain't got nothing to prove," he said. "Nothing to prove, man. I just have fun. I focus and go hard. That's it."