Lakers forward Metta World Peace powers his way to the basket against Rockets… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
His newly prominent cheekbones, sharply chiseled in a slender face, are the most obvious indication that Metta World Peace has become much lighter of body. His diligence during the Lakers' first training-camp workouts testifies to his lightness of mind and his commitment to being a valued role player on a potential championship team.
World Peace can be a wild card for the Lakers, and in a good way. Though most of the focus has been on how Dwight Howard will mesh with Kobe Bryant and on Steve Nash's adjustment to the Princeton offense, World Peace has worked quietly to again be effective at his usual tenacious, disruptive defense and to improve his shooting.
"He's determined, he's hungry and he's in tremendous shape. He can run all day and at high speeds with tremendous quickness," Bryant said. "I haven't seen him in this great a shape since Indiana."
World Peace came to camp last season at 274 pounds and didn't find his rhythm until late. Despite a month of hard partying in July — "I gotta have fun then because I don't drink during the season," he said — he reported this season at 255. He said Thursday he had touched 249, his best weight since he was an All-Star and NBA defensive player of the year with the Pacers in 2004.
He credited Tim DiFrancesco, the Lakers' strength and conditioning coach, for guiding him toward taking better care of his body. As part of the three-step mind-body program World Peace devised to help himself and set an example for others, he led health walks in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles this summer. He has found a state of mind that can only be described as one of peace.
"The thinking behind that was just healthy living," he said. "I got with this company, and this training exercise that I've been doing has been really amazing. Mwpworkout.com. It doesn't mean Metta World Peace. It means mind, wellness and performance. My friend was saying, 'You should pledge to get in shape, pledge to live healthy, to walk with your family members.'
"You know, a lot of couples out there can do that together, just walking together and getting in shape together, and it kind of just changed my perspective on health and getting in shape and just enjoying my career and my craft."
His enhanced fitness allows him to be more active and effective on the court.
"Right now I get to the basket any time I want. I don't have to depend on somebody to give me a shot. I don't have to depend on somebody else to create things for me," he said. "That's a great feeling, to be back at that All-Star weight and I'm only 32. I've been around a while but I'm only 32, so I've still got a chance to do a lot of things."
At his best, which he was late last season when he averaged 16.3 points over seven games while Bryant recovered from a shin injury, he is a force.
"Ron is a physical player. He can play defense and keep guys in front of him and lock guys up," Pau Gasol said, reverting to World Peace's birth name of Ron Artest.
"And then he knocks down consistently the three-point shots and outside shots and obviously that's a big plus that he can crash the boards. He overpowers forwards too. There's a lot of things that Metta can do."
Some of those things aren't so great, like his career-low 7.7 points per game last season and his wild elbow to the face of the Oklahoma City Thunder's James Harden, which cost him a seven-game suspension that carried over into the playoffs. There were whispers the Lakers considered using their amnesty provision to waive him in July, which would have saved them a pile in luxury tax payments on the $15 million he's owed this season and next.
World Peace said he wasn't worried.
"I'm way too good of a basketball player to be amnestied," he said. "I don't mean that to be arrogant, but I'm on a team with arguably one of the greatest starting fives ever to step on the court, and I'm on that team. I'm blessed. I really thank God for that opportunity. But there's got to be something I'm doing right. I'm with the Laker organization that makes the most money in the NBA and has won the second-most championships. Mitch Kupchak is one of the best general managers. Why else would I be here?
"There's no way I was being amnestied. A lot of people were talking. Totally false. A lot of media reported stuff. Totally inaccurate and impossible."
Coach Mike Brown seems happy World Peace is still a Laker.
"He's been great. He's in terrific shape. Not only is he in great shape but he's playing at a high level," Brown said. "He's shooting the ball very well and he's defending and doing all the little things that I thought he didn't start doing well until the end of the season. He's way ahead of where he was at the beginning of last season."
And in many ways.
"My discipline is going to write the rest of my legacy," World Peace said, "and I'm very happy about that."