I had no idea who Andrew Bynum was on the night of June 28, 2005.
This is a big deal to me to this day. I was 13 and absolutely obsessed with the NBA Draft. I immersed myself in a world of potential, upside, and the litany of metrics used to determine draft stock. It’s fascinating. To be able to say you’ve seen a player at every step of his NBA journey. To hope that in some way, there is a connection between your life and theirs; that their growth and development will somehow coincide with your own.
So by the time the Los Angeles Lakers were placed in foreign territory and asked to make the the 10th pick in the 2005 Draft, I was fully expecting a player like Gerald Green or Danny Granger, my favorite prospect at the time. Of course, at 13, my knowledge went only as far as mock draft websites took me. And they evidently didn’t take me far enough to anticipate what would follow:
“With the 10th pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers select Andrew Bynum of St. Joseph’s High School in Metuchen, New Jersey.”
I didn’t know the guy. I still don’t really know the guy. For someone consistently considered one of the rising stars in the NBA, there is a stunning lack of provocative backstory that seems to arise as soon as fame and productivity sets in. But we know what we know, and after six years watching Bynum develop, we’ve seen distinct sides of a player at the center of our discontent, our horror, and our optimism. Who do we know, exactly?
The kid. On a Sunday afternoon before a much anticipated matchup between the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, ABC cameras cut to Bynum in the visiting locker room,Â fiddling around with his iPad. Twitter went ablaze withÂ Angry Birds jokes and otherÂ quizzicalÂ observations about Bynum. All of this from a few seconds of footage. There’s something that has us gravitating towards him. It’s hard to miss the lilt in his voice during interviews. His eyes widen, and suddenly he’s that doe-eyed 17 year old kid just happy to be in the league. Youth is held at such a premium in the NBA. To think Bynum still possesses plenty of it six years into his career…it’s kind of unfair.
Then there are the stories that inevitably come every summer. Bynum taking weeks off to vacation thousand upon thousands of miles away from home and from basketball. By all accounts, Bynum is a bright guy. And a thirst for culture and knowledge isn’t something that can be ignored. Not every player has the luxury of going through Kobe Bryant’s childhood: living and thriving in a different environment, learning multiple languages and growing up with a broader perspective. Bynum is satisfying his curiosity with the resources he has. He’s doing what we all dreamt of doing as kids. Call it a lack of focus, or a lack of dedication. Or call it a growing exercise.
The victim. We know the story. We’ve heard it many times before. Bynum’s career has been a long trail of inconsistency, though it’s hard to fault him for the injuries that have curtailed incredible stretches of basketball.
It’s hard to go out there and give it your all when you’re fully aware of history. You hate history. Because history says around this time, you’re going to crumble right when you hit your stride. You might be able to return and help your team sometime during the postseason push, but you won’t be anywhere near where you were. Better luck next year.
Perhaps what hurts the most as a fan is how Bynum’s injuries have created a systems of highs or lows with no real middle ground. There is Bynum playing well, Bynum not playing at all, and the recovery period in between. Without a reliable mean, we’re left to wonder about potential and health without ever having a clear view of what’s in front of us.
But victims must to rise from the underground eventually. Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register has a must-read article about Bynum’s relationship with sports psychologist George Mumford, and how Mumford has helped Bynum break from his spell:
Those who dismiss Jackson’s mind games as mumbo jumbo can feel free to believe it’s all about the cartilage in Bynum’s right knee being more firmly reattached, his conditioning having improved or maybe even his nutritionist’s lean protein and brown rice.
But only Bynum knows how much easier it is for him to sense which way a ball is going to bounce if he’s really looking at it. He describes the high-speed, loud-arena NBA action now as “quiet” until the whistle blows to stop play.
That inner focus â€” away from thoughts of pain, and anything else for that matter â€” has helped Bynum not only overcome the mental hurdles of injury, but also regain the fearless commitment to the team that was so vital in last year’s playoffs. Victims can’t stay oppressed forever.
The star/ the winner. It’s in him. Of that, there is little doubt. All of those formative years with Kareem haven’t been forgotten. Bynum’s still capable of being the offensive menace he was in previous years. His understanding of positioning has taken another step up this season, as he is becoming more and more comfortable using his body as leverage. While he’s taking fewer shots, he’s as efficient as he’s ever been offensively.
If anything has solidified his star potential, it’s his work on the defensive end. In less minutes a game than the past two seasons, Bynum is pulling down more rebounds and blocking more shots a game. He’s shown his impact on both ends of the floor. Now he’s just waiting for the keys to the car.
A year or two ago, Bynum’s light was uncontrollable. Scoring 20 points a game was never the issue, it was in balancing his duties with the team. It was in aligning himself in a favorable position with three other super-talents. Now, it’s different. “I’m just trying to rebound and defend, man.” Bynum knows how to win. He knows how to succeed. He plays with the most bloodthirsty basketball player we’ve seen in more than a decade. He plays with one of the most skilled post players of this era. He knows where he falls in place. Bynum’s been given a rare opportunity to learn what it means to be a champion before the pressures of stardom have a chance at cracking him first. Because we all know stardom is much easier pill to swallow when you’re winning.
Maybe last summer’s trip to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup wasn’t such a bad idea. Bynum experienced first-hand the roars of fans who’ve waited their entire lives to support their country, and watched some of the best (soccer) players in the world support one another on the same team, under the same flag. Everyone has a role, and success isn’t actualized until harmony is achieved. Playing with the world’s most talented basketball players is no death knell, it’s a blessing. It’s a learning experience. There will come a day when Bynum will be that superstar he’s always envisioned himself being. As of now though, he a cog in the immaculate championship generating machine that is the Los Angeles Lakers.
After six years, this is what we know of Andrew Bynum. This season has been a culmination of the innocence, tragedy, hope, and perspective that has laid the foundation to Bynum’s rise. With so much uncertainty in this year’s championship race, Bynum stands as the Lakers’ most vital asset. The playoffs are just around the corner, and Bynum has a chance to play at a much higher level than he has in past years. There’s still much he has to learn about himself and his place in Lakers lore. But he’s learning. We’re learning too.