Goodbye, Big Fella

Darius Soriano —  August 10, 2012

Andrew Bynum came to the Lakers as the youngest player ever drafted into the NBA. Taken out of high school with the 10th pick in 2005 – the highest the team had drafted in over 10 years – the Lakers gambled that the young big man would develop and become a franchise cornerstone. He had immense size, good hands, and an inquisitive mind. He also had little basketball experience, never completing a full season in high school. For all intents and purposes, he was a blank slate that would need to be molded and developed. No one really knew what he would become. Everyone, though, had hope.

And so it began.

In his first season he showed that he would be willing to compete, producing a sequence we all remember. After being used as a catapult and getting pogo’d into the hardwood by a Shaq tip slam, Bynum raced up the floor and delivered quick retribution with a nifty spin move and a strong finish of his own. For good measure, he let the former franchise big man know he’d arrived by delivering a bump that the Diesel countered with one his trademarked pork chop elbows. On that night Bynum showed he’d stand up to anyone and that he had some skill to play with the big boys. It was one of the few highlights in a season of mostly watching and learning but it was something.

Fast forward a few years and you have a disgruntled Kobe wondering when the investment in the young fella would ever bear fruit. A parking lot video full of pot shots soon became the story of the day with everyone wondering how Bynum would respond. As it turned out, quite well. Using that video as a bit of extra motivation, Bynum came into camp ready to be a contributor; ready to start his ascension as one of the better young big men in the league.

In 2008 Bynum showed that all the hard work was paying off. Tutoring sessions with Kareem helped produce a foundation of strong footwork that all big men need to be effective. With solid feet, his young legs provided the spring for him to play a dashing, above the rim game. His long arms and good hands meant no pass was ever out of reach. Lob city wasn’t a thing in 2008, but with Kobe and Bynum running the 2/5 pick and roll, it probably should have been. Bynum dunked everything in sight, or at least tried to. The chip on his shoulder was pronounced and it came attached to a body that was primed to unleash havoc. Kobe was happy, the Lakers were surprising the league by ranking among the West’s top teams, and everything was looking up.

Until, of course it wasn’t.

On that fateful January night in Memphis, Kobe crashed into his young big man’s knee. The face of the franchise who once sarcastically scoffed at young Bynum now gasped as he saw that the guy he’d just started to lean on toppled over in pain, clutching his leg. Bynum would be done for the year. The Lakers would go on to trade for Pau Gasol and reach the Finals anyway. And thus, a new stage in Bynum’s career was born.

Bynum came back the following year hoping to build on what was the start of his previous season’s breakout but found a team that had changed with him in street clothes. Pau had become the anchor in the pivot, his exquisite passing and all around game one of the pillars of the triple post offense. Lamar Odom also raised his level of play. Properly slotted as the team’s do it all big man, scoring some nights, assisting on others, always on the glass, always everywhere defensively. Together with Gasol, they were the ones that closed games; they were the ones whose versatility blended so nicely with Kobe. The team went on to win the title, Bynum playing his role as de facto starting Center who closed games cheering on his mates from the bench. His contributions were necessary to win but the credit was doled out to the guys that did the heavy lifting at the end.

But even with a role somewhat in flux, Bynum just continued to improve. His athleticism wasn’t quite the same but his body became transformed. His shoulders and arms chiseled, he began bullying his man more with straight post ups. In the process of working more from the block, his game also became more refined. Less frequent were the above the rim finishes, instead replaced with righty jump hooks and counter spins to the baseline. He’d flash a face up jumper, a lefty jump hook. Then he’d lower the boom with a lob just to show he could still do that too.

In 2010 the Lakers went on to repeat as champions. Bynum took a larger role but was still part of the three-headed big man monster. The Lakers don’t win without him gutting through a meniscus tear and playing the final three series hobbled; they certainly don’t grab all those offensive rebounds in game 7 against the Celtics without him occupying defenders and giving his all. Bynum showed us all that winning was all that mattered and that he’d be willing to make the sacrifices to do so.

But here is where the story gets complicated. Surgery to repair his torn meniscus was delayed by a trip to the World Cup and a surgeon’s vacation. The procedure itself changed from routine to more complex – a change that would aid in Bynum’s long term health but also extend his recovery period. He’d start the season on the shelf and his team would feel the effects of that later. Pressed into longer minutes, Gasol wore down. Bynum wasn’t quite himself upon return and took time to find his stride.

By the time the playoffs came the Lakers looked weary from long playoff runs and heavy minutes, though Bynum looked as good as he ever had. His game was showing full polish by April of 2011. The lefty jump hook was part of his arsenal. As was all the nifty baseline work born of drop steps and quick spins. He took on more responsibility in that post-season but it didn’t really matter. The Lakers were swept. The defense crumbled, Bynum’s frustration led to a terrible foul on J.J. Barrea and quotes about trust issues.

All the while though, Bynum simply continued to improve. By this past season, the potential that was so often attached to his name became actual production. A fully healthy season produced season highs in minutes and averages in points and rebounds. He’d clinch a game versus the Celtics with a power post up move that one of the league’s best defenders looked helpless to stop. He’d have a 30 rebound game. In a playoff game he’d record a triple double that included 10 blocked shots. He earned his first all-star berth and was named 2nd team All-NBA. He’d asked for more, gotten more, and delivered.

There have been missteps along the way. This past season showed a player not yet fully aware of what it means to be a leader. Some games he loafed. Others he went off and did whatever he felt like doing on any given possession on both sides of the ball. He’d sit out of huddles. He’d miss a meeting. His honesty, while always welcomed to an eager press corps, wasn’t always the right thing to say in public. And, I could go on. Despite all that, though, Andrew Bynum showed a great self awareness. He knew what he was, how he was perceived, and worked through all of it to become a fantastic player.

There’s something to be said for watching a player develop on the team you root for. Bynum went from chubby and unpolished to the 2nd best Center in the league. He did so through injuries and surgeries. Through trade rumors and a role in which he wanted to be more than what he was being asked to do. He never really got credit for how much work he put in, consistently being called lazy or not caring enough about basketball.

I never understood those claims. You don’t come back from injury better than before without working hard or without caring. You don’t mold your body by putting in the hours. You don’t refine your skills, develop counters, and keep adding new facets every year without caring. You don’t speak your mind either. I for one, will miss seeing Andrew Bynum play for the team I root for. He helped win two championships and gave us many moments to remember during his 7 years with the team. He grew up – not fully, but a great deal – during his time in Los Angeles.

And now he’ll get his shot to take his game even further in Philly. Good luck, Andrew Bynum.

Darius Soriano

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