When discussing Andrew Bynum, Lakers fans have always had to speak in tentative terms. The young big man has always shown flashes of what he could be, but when focusing on what he would be it’s never been a sure thing. And to a certain extent, it’s still not as the thought of him being unavailable due to the next ailment is an all too common thought amongst fans. That said, I’m going to ask people to forget the injuries for a second and focus on what we are actually seeing from the 23 year old behemoth, because what he’s showing us in his latest return from knee surgery is better than anything we’ve seen in the past.
Don’t get me wrong in what I’m saying here. Since Bynum’s break out year in 2008, he’s steadily shown a progression to his game that made it obvious he was becoming one of the great young prospects. The refinement of his offensive game was evident as he developed a number of very effective post moves and counters that often left defenders befuddled. So, in a sense, the knack for scoring and the polish exhibited in doing so isn’t really new. But, at the same time scoring is only one aspect of contributing to effective offense. In the past he wasn’t consistently playing in a way that promoted the best outcomes for the team. Like, for instance, he wasn’t always passing. A little bit less than a year ago, I wrote the following when evaluating Andrew Bynum and his black hole tendencies:
I think we all agree that Bynum is not using all aspects of our offense. And I too would like to see him pass more and utilize his teammates better. I think one of the reasons that our offense is not as efficient this season as it was last season is because Bynum has taken on a greater role within the offense and he’s not executing the finer details with as much precision as Gasol/Odom.
At the same time, though, I was still pretty confident that one day he’d start to show us an even greater understanding of operating within the Lakers’ offense:
That said, Bynum is still young and still learning. As he continues to establish himself as an offensive force, the double teams will come faster and force him to pass more. As he gains experience he’ll read defenses better, understand what the opposition’s strategy is against him, and become more patient. But it all comes in stages. Our young Center is learning and getting better each season. The passing will come as his development and maturation continues.
Well, I’m here to tell you that the day I was talking about seems to be here. Since Bynum’s return from knee injury he’s shown a patience and maturation to his game that really is a sight to see. He’s reading defenses better than at any point in his career and is making excellent passes on many possessions. Of the top of my head, I can count several plays he’s made in the past several games that he wouldn’t (couldn’t?) have made last year. A brief example is a diagonal pass out of the hub of the Triangle to Derek Fisher on the weak-side of the court. That pass immediately led to a Lamar Odom duck in where Fisher delivered the ball to LO for shot inside where he was fouled. The court vision and understanding of teammate positioning that Bynum displayed in making that pass was light years ahead of the man many called a black hole just last February.
And this conceptual grasp of how he should play as an individual isn’t the only way that he’s showing growth. When evaluating what went wrong in a loss, Bynum revealed a firm understanding of what was ailing the team:
We can’t turn the basketball over. Out of the triangle, we have three guys on the baseline, so when we turn the basketball over, it puts us at a super big disadvantage… Especially with that first unit that’s in there, with Pau and myself, kind of slow-footed getting back. It’s causing a lot of problems, so we’ve just got to take care of the basketball so that doesn’t happen. We have to sit these teams down and make them play 20 seconds of defense. Really work the ball, so that it fuels our defense.
This quote is just one example (he’s had plenty of others that show his evolution into a thinker of the game) but to listen to him so clearly articulate an issue that contributed a loss is refreshing.
What we’ve mostly focused on, though, is Bynum’s offense. And while his continued ability to score the ball is a welcomed sight, I think we can all agree that where he can really impact the game is on defense. His sheer size and length naturally create a disruptive force on defense when it’s channelled and used correctly. Over at Land O’ Lakers, Dave McMenamin has some choice quotesand good nuggets of information explaining how the Lakers are now relying more and more on Bynum to be the team’s defensive anchor:
The system we’ve been working on in practice is starting to pick up a little bit,” Andrew Bynum said. “Guys are starting to understand the concept of funneling the wings to Pau and myself and trying to make them hit over the top of us.” Said Bryant of Bynum, who impressed with 18 points, seven rebounds and two blocks: “He’s our protector so we funnel a lot through him. He’s doing a great job changing shots.
Simply put, Bynum is now a major difference maker. Rather than being the icing on the cake in the Lakers’ chances to win a title, he’s becoming a key ingredient in the team’s foundation to achieving the goal. And while that’s sure to cause concern amongst fans that see the glass half empty of Bynum’s injury past, I’m happy that we’ve even gotten to this point. Because more than anything else it shows his growth as a player and how that development has enabled the team to even think of him in this way. I know that we’ll never be able to escape the the thoughts of another ‘Drew injury. But on that subject, I’ll leave the last word to commenter The Dude Abides who offers some perspective on Bynum’s procedure and how it’s affected his play this year (and hopefully for years to come):
Drew is looking even better than the first part of last season, when he was supposedly healthy…The injury that he suffered when Kobe collided with his knee in Memphis two years ago not only was a torn MCL, but also a tiny tear of the meniscus. Coming back from that injury, he played the entire 2009 postseason with the same tiny meniscus tear, rehabbed some more over the summer, then played the entire 09-10 regular season with the same torn meniscus. He aggravated it in the first round against OKC. The surgeon last July 28 decided to repair the meniscus instead of removing the injured portion, resulting in a longer recovery time but hopefully a more stable knee. Looks like it’s working, as this is the most athletic Drew has looked since that two-week stretch in January 2009 when he was the most dominant offensive center in the league.