Kobe Bryant was the matchup nightmare. He had all the moves in the book and had the relentlessness about him that he was never going to let you off the hook.
Many NBA players say that Kobe was the toughest guy they ever had to face, and I sure can tell why. But who is the guy that gave Kobe the most problems at the start of his career? The answer may surprise you.
The first person that got me was Nick van Exel in practice. Nick the Quick was getting me at practice, and you know, he kept saying you reach I teach, you reach I teach. He was hitting me with that little bop stuff, and it drove me crazy. My first time getting out there and playing; Nick went at me really hard. It took me about a whole a week to figure out he couldn’t go right, and I had to switch it.Kobe Bryant, Knuckleheads
This is what Mamba had to say on the Knuckleheads podcast talking to Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson. So Nick Van Exel was Kobe’s “welcome to the NBA “matchup. Who would’ve taught? Don’t get me wrong, Van Exel was known at that time as one of the most explosive and skilled point guards in the league, and he had an outstanding NBA career. I guess I just wasn’t expecting it.
Despite getting challenged by Van Exel in practices who went hard at Bryant, it took him a while to figure out how to stop him. Van Exel was a quick left-handed guard who used his speed and ballhandling skills to his advantage, so Bryant realized he needs to force him to go right. This helped Bryant to understand how to effectively stop his teammate but also learn his tendencies on the court. Van Exel ended up being a great mentor for Kobe, as he became the first obstacle he had to overcome on his path to greatness.
Van Exel played for the Lakers until 1998, before getting traded to the Nuggets. After he and Kobe were no longer teammates, they had some tremendous meaningful matchups. They played each other 24 times, and Kobe’s team won 15 of those clashes.
Ultimately, Kobe outplayed Nick as he averaged 25.5 PPG in those 25 games. Van Exel averaged 16 points when playing Kobe, but it’s important to mention that many of those games were in a later stage of his career. When Nick was at the peak of his powers, he did have a few fantastic performances against Bryant, with a standout 41 points display in ’99.
Their last matchup took place in ’06, while Van Exel was a Spur. He didn’t see much playing time, but he did win his final game vs. Mamba. I bet Kobe wasn’t happy about it, but he sure appreciated Nick’s mentorship and everything he had done for him, ever since he came from Lower Merion High School into the league.