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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. --- The smile captured his enthusiasm. The quick stride captured his energy. The expansive conversations captured his outgoing nature.
Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James woke up at 5:30 am on Tuesday feeling giddy for numerous reasons. He said he couldn’t wait to practice at the team’s facility. He said he couldn’t wait to see his teammates. And he said he even couldn’t wait to talk to reporters at the team’s media day.
Yes, James appeared rejuvenated four months after the Lakers lost in six games to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs while nursing limitations to a high right ankle sprain that sidelined him for 27 games. That disappointing playoff loss happened during a season that started only two months after the Lakers won the 2020 NBA title against the Miami Heat on a quarantined campus.
“The season came too fast for everyone,” James said. “It was not only us and the Heat that played in the Finals. But everybody that was a part of the bubble and things of that nature. But the four months we had to recalibrate to and get back to some rest, you’re also getting your mind back fresh. You’re able to spend a lot of time with your friends and your family, and things of that nature. You’re also put a lot of work in and get healthy.”
So now that the 36-year-old James reports feeling both physically and mentally recharged, he conceded he has plenty to show in his 19th NBA season.
“I have to prove to my teammates that I’m available,” James said, “and that I’ll hold myself accountable.”
How did James hold himself accountable?
The same way he did after missing a combined 27 games because of a strained left strain during his first season with the Lakers three years ago. James used the early offseason to rest his injured body. Then he trained extensively both with early morning individuals workouts and team-bonding mini-camps in Las Vegas just before training camp.
“The thing that stands out is his fitness level and he slimmed up,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said about James, who is listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds. “LeBron studies the greats, and he adds things to his game. I think going into this stage of his career, he’s made a decision to come back a little bit leaner. I think that is going to translate in his explosiveness and quickness. But he’s been very locked in with his training.”
James has not just become locked into his training to ensure he pushes back Father Time for another season. He wants to accelerate on-court chemistry with a familiar face (Anthony Davis), two new All-Stars (Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony) and a handful of role players (Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore).
James remains aware that his health will play a significant factor in the Lakers’ hopes to win the NBA title. He also remains aware that his on-court chemistry with other star teammates will be a significant factor, too.
After missing for the playoffs during his first season with the Lakers, James returned rejuvenated enough to propel himself into the NBA regular-season MVP discussion. Before that season started, James organized a mini training camp in hopes to foster chemistry with new teammates that included Davis. In related news, the Lakers won the 2020 NBA title.
“Every year calls for a different type of LeBron,” Anthony said. “We don’t know what LeBron we’ll get this year. I think that’s the exciting part of it. But I do think this team has been assembled the right way with the right pieces. It’s not just any type of players that’s meshed together. A lot of times when you put a group of players together and a group of talent like we have, a lot of times it doesn’t work out. But I think where we’re at in our careers, we’re understanding all of the sacrifices that we’re going to have to take and make in order for this to work.”
No one understands that more than James, who has faced the pressure with winning NBA championships on the fly. He has won four titles in 10 Finals appearances, including seven in a row.
“I always just figure it out. So I’m not worried about that,” James said. “I don’t think it’s going to be peanut butter and jelly to start the season. But that’s all part of the process. I like to actually put in the work in order to get how great it can be.”
Ever since the Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook from Washington for an emerging young player (Kyle Kuzma), a bruising forward (Montrezl Harrell) and a coveted draft pick (No. 22) in late July, James said “we’ve been tied at the hip” by training frequently with each other. During those workouts, James has gotten a better sense on how he and Westbrook will share ballhandling duties.
“We need Russ to be Russ,” James said. “We don’t need Russ to change for anybody. That’s why we got him. It’s our job to all help him feel comfortable in our system.”
As James would admit, though, it still starts and ends with him. Considering how refreshed, excited and at ease he looked at media day, James appears ready to assert himself again as one of the NBA’s best players and leaders.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James feels rejuvenated in quest to lead Lakers to another title