Originally created 12/20/97

Bryant probably won't be Jordan's `Air Apparent'

CHICAGO -- It's not going to be Grant Hill. He passes the ball, rebounds it and passes it again. No highlights there.

It's not going to be Anfernee Hardaway. Great commercials, but too brittle.

It's not going to be Kevin Garnett or Allen Iverson or Keith Van Horn or Antoine Walker or Tim Duncan.

The next Michael Jordan? It probably won't be the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who, given the chance, may be the closest talent to Jordan to come into the NBA in the last decade.

"He's one of those players who can be one of the best to ever play the game," Lakers teammate Eddie Jones says of Bryant,

The complete ensemble, once Shaquille O'Neal returns, appears to be the most likely to end the Bulls' championship run.

While the Lakers talk privately about championships, Bryant's name is getting top billing these days as the Air Apparent. Yet the only player with the makeup to replace Jordan just happened to go to the wrong team.

O'Neal actually is the reason Bryant may not be able to reach the levels of Jordan. O'Neal has been troubled with an abdominal injury, which is a pain not only in the Lakers' stomach, but their heart. No matter how entertaining and talented Bryant is, and no matter how solid Jones and Nick Van Exel have been playing, O'Neal remains the best and most dominant player on the Lakers. He usually can be found near the basket, with the spotlight clearly on him.

Contrast that to when Jordan came into the NBA. His supporting cast featured Dave Corzine, with Orlando Woolridge, Quintin Dailey, David Greenwood and Sidney Green taking up space elsewhere on the court.

Faced with those options, it was an easy decision for Bulls coach Kevin Loughery. He gave the ball to Jordan and ordered everyone else out of the way. In later years, Jordan would do that himself.

As a rookie, Jordan averaged 20 shots per game and about 38 minutes. In his second full season in the NBA, he averaged an astounding 28 shots per game in just more than 40 minutes.

Jordan was able to flourish as a one-man show. That never will happen with Bryant and the Lakers, who have plenty of options.

In Bryant's second season in the NBA, he's averaging 26 minutes per game and 13 shots, less than half what Jordan attempted his second year.

Yet even with those constraints, Bryant still radiates. He is averaging almost 17 points per game for a championship contender in an era when teams are averaging almost 15 fewer points per game than during Jordan's opening years.

"He's a uniquely skilled young player who at times can make you very excited watching him," says Lakers General Manager Jerry West, who got Bryant out of high school in the 1996 draft in a deal for Vlade Divac after Charlotte drafted Bryant 13th. "He's simply the best prospect we ever worked out. If anyone would have worked him out, they'd have seen that. It was impossible not to see."

There's a reason why people see Bryant and say Jordan. Bryant has the skills.

"He has the ability to create in the air," says Hall-of-Fame coach Jack Ramsay. "I saw him one time this year drive from the left wing, go under the basket, past the basket and then stuff the ball with two hands over his head with his back to the basket. And as I visualize it, I can still see his elbows above the rim."


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