Went Pro After High School
At Lower Merion High School, Bryant became a basketball star, breaking records and collecting trophies and honors. As a senior he was voted National High School Player of the Year by USA Today and Parade magazine. He had helped his team win a Class AAAA state title, and had ended his high school career with a total of 2,883 points—more than any other player in the history of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which had produced such NBA greats as Wilt Chamberlain and Carlin Warley. Bryant also boasted a record-breaking average of 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4.0 steals, and 3.8 blocked shots per game.
In an unusual move, Bryant skipped college and went directly into a career as a professional basketball player. Picked 13th overall in the 1996 NBA draft, Bryant was originally selected by the Charlotte Hornets. Yet before the season began he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for the center Vlade Divac. At eighteen years, two months, and eleven days old, he became the youngest player ever to make an NBA debut. Donning a number 8 on his uniform, he appeared in his first game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 3, 1996.
Bryant made his first career start on January 28, 1997, scoring twelve points in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. In 1997's Schick Rookie Game, Bryant set a new record with a top score of thirty-one points and eight rebounds. Participating in that year's NBA All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, he won the Nestle Crunch Slam Dunk Competition. Averaging 7.6 points per game and 15.5 minutes per game in seventy-one games during his debut season, Bryant was named to the 1996-97 NBA All-Rookie Second Team. Already sports critics were focusing in on the young player.
Bryant doubled his points-per-game in his sophomore season, ending with an average of 15.4 in seventy-nine games. He started only one game with the Lakers that season, scoring seventeen points and four rebounds against the Portland Trail Blazers in February. Voted a starter in the 1998 All-Star Game, Bryant made history as the youngest NBA All-Star player. In that year's All-Star Game in New York, he led his team with eighteen points and six rebounds.
By the 1998-99 season, Bryant was regarded as one of the sport's most promising rising stars. He was the only Lakers player to start all fifty games, and was the team's second-highest scorer with 19.9 points per game. Leading the Lakers in steals (1.44 per game), Bryant was chosen for the 1998-99 All-NBA Third Team. In January of 1999, he signed a six-year contract extension with the Lakers, believed to be worth about $71 million.
The next season, in a game against the Sacramento Kings on March 3, 2000, Bryant netted a career-high of forty points, with ten rebounds and four assists. That year would be a turning point for the Los Angeles team, which, with the help of Bryant and his powerhouse teammate Shaquille O'Neal, would take the NBA Championship title.