Report Card - Andrew Bynum
Andrew Bynum arrived at training camp in the awkward position of being at the center of a storm he did nothing to create. An unhappy Kobe Bryant was caught on tape in a parking lot expressing an opinion that Drew's rear would be best served shipped to New Jersey for Jason Kidd. The front office reacted by making it fairly clear that unless the exchanged player was named "Kevin" or "Garnett," no trade would go down involving their third-year center, especially not in a blatant effort to appease their disgruntled star. For his part, Bynum simply showed up at Media Day thick in body, from his serious summer workouts, and in skin, claiming not to be hurt by The Mamba's rant (even if he found the situation kind of "messed up").
But then a funny thing happened amid the uncertainty. Bynum began the year off the pine and found an immediate groove with Jordan Farmar, overmatching most second-string big men while anchoring an instantly prolific "Bench Mob." And despite regularly clocking equal or better minutes than starter Kwame Brown, Phil Jackson was content to keep playing him as a sub, both to strengthen the bench and keep him hungry. But then an ankle and knee injury to the former #54 thrust Bynum into the starting five, a development that saw the youngster's production truly skyrocket.
Drew's starter averages rounded out to nearly 15/11/two swats. Very nice in and of themselves, but that's was only part of the story. Check out his monthly splits and you'll see numbers mostly trending upward, and while that came in part from upped PT, the stats were also accrued against better competition. Anyway sliced, the kid played like an elite big in the making. His incredibly soft hands made him both a catch/dunk and put-back machine, while court awareness beyond his years equaled great efficiency whether passing out of the low post or slipping toward the rack. He's also a legit glass-eater with a rebounder's mentality. On the other side of the ball, the shots he didn't block were often bothered greatly by his length, and his pick-and-roll coverage, while still a work in progress, was showing marked improvement. Most important, he got a serious seal of approval from the dude who hadn't been willing to wait on him. Kobe began referring to his center as "the player I prayed about having on my team for years" and the same Lakers he previously wanted to bolt as a championship contender. The optimism was justified. After a 10-4 January, 2008 kicked off with a six-game winning streak, and the Lakers were on the verge of overtaking Phoenix as the West's first-place team.
Then all of Los Angeles learned what the medical term "sublaxation" means.
In layman's speak, it's a dislocation, and in this particular case, of Bynum's knee during a game against Memphis. A minimum 8-10 week absence was the prognosis, and the Lakers tried to remain cautiously optimistic of a late-season return. As we all know, that didn't quite happen. #17 eventually required some scoping, but the surgery itself wasn't major and hopes for a full recovery seem realistic.
And in the meantime, Los Angeles also learned the Spanish term for "bright side" ("mire el lado positivo", according to my fluent girlfriend), as Bynum's injury prompted the decision to trade for Pau Gasol, a decision the front office has claimed may not have been deemed necessary otherwise. Granted, I would like to think that even with Bynum in the pink, a phone call from Chris Wallace offering El Spaniard for Kwame's expiring deal wouldn't have been met with Mitch yelling, "I'm hanging up immediately and I'll thank you to not call me again, sir!!!" Still, you never know, and in any case, the Lakers are now looking at next season with arguably the league's most talented frontcourt.
How can Bynum do his part to remove "arguably" from the above sentence? Develop a few more post moves to fall back on as bread and butter. Keep working on his range from 8-10 feet out. Become a little better at recognizing defensive situations as they develop further from the basket. And while he's no softy inside, the Lakers could use a real banger, and if they don't bring in one, Bynum may to play a little more that way at times. But the areas in need of growth aren't nearly as crucial as the leaps and bounds he took this season. And more important, seemingly overnight. Even as someone who felt early on this kid would turn out good, I won't even pretend to have figured the breakthrough would come before season four or five. But what may be the most remarkable aspect of Bynum's season was how he managed to confirm the front-office's faith (and competence) while playing a large (maybe even the biggest) role in turning rather quickly Kobe's thoughts on staying in L.A. Not bad for a 20-year-old.
Final Grade: A-/Inc.