ANDREW BYNUM: Building on the Legacy

When the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat following the 2003-2004 season, it shook the franchise, the city and the fans to their collective cores as the Lakers abruptly reentered the land of the mortal.

For a franchise rich in its tradition of legendary centers such as George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal, the seismic shock from O’Neal’s departure left the team in disarray—not to mention, centerless.

Looking for a beacon of hope, the Lakers brass followed up on an inkling in the summer of 2005, drafting a lanky 17 year-old seven footer out of St. Joseph High School in New Jersey.

His name was Andrew Bynum and in case you missed his head-turning game against the Suns on Christmas Day, he just had his national coming out party.

Although it’s probably still too early to speculate on whether or not Andrew has the ability to become the next great Lakers center, the hangover effect from his sparkling 28 point, 12 rebound performance against division-leading Phoenix has made it that much harder to dispute the fact that, at the very least, he has the potential to be a truly special player.

But, even “once in a generation” level players don’t necessarily come built with all their parts in perfect working condition. Though hard to believe, even Kobe Bryant is a work in progress.

When Bynum first stepped foot on the Long Beach Pyramid floor in the summer of 2005 for an NBA Summer Pro League game, an overflow crowd of 5,000 plus fans stood hovering over him, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the franchise’s “savior.”

If Andrew felt the pressure of an entire city weighing down on him, he certainly did a good job of hiding it.

“I don’t feel pressure,” Bynum said. “It’s just exciting that the city is behind me. That’s a great thing to have and hopefully I turn out the way they want.”

True to his statement, at the tender age of 20, Andrew already has the composure and humility of someone with at least double his experience. Spend two minutes with him and it becomes painstakingly obvious that Bynum isn’t looking to play well simply to boost his own vanity; he feels that he owes it to his mentor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lakers fans everywhere to reach his full potential.

After a summer of hard work in which Andrew rededicated himself to staying in shape and eating healthy, the Lakers and Bynum are finally beginning to reap the rewards of his newfound motivation, to the tune of a double-double average this season and renewed hope in Lakerland.

“After last season, I made that declaration (to get in shape) because I lost 20 pounds during the course of the season (2006-07),” said Bynum. “I ended the season at 265 and my optimum playing weight is 280.”

In fact, Andrew even went out and hired a trainer on his accord this summer, leaving the experienced Lakers training staff for a month this August to work with a strength/conditioning/athletic performance specialist.

“At first we were a little startled to hear him say that he wasn’t going to be with us for the month of August, which is what we want,” said Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak. “But then, the more we thought about it, the fact that he would take that initiative to go out and hire someone on his own, to go live in a hotel for a month and then just live, drink and breathe weights, running, conditioning and basketball, we thought that was good.”

Although Bynum spent the summer learning from the star tandem of Kurt Rambis and Abdul-Jabbar, according to Kupchak, the grand scale improvements in his game have more to do with Andrew’s high level of commitment than the prestige of his training brigade.

“I don’t want to say that because of Kurt Rambis or Gary Vitti or Chip Schaefer or his trainer, that’s why he is what he is today,” said Kupchak. “He has to give himself credit for deciding to work. I think the fact that he made a conscious decision is a good sign.”

The results so far this season have set the NBA world abuzz, no longer simply based on mere potential, but on his play too. Bynum’s scoring average has increased every month this season, boosting his overall average to 13 points and 10 rebounds per game while garnering glowing reviews from teammates, fans and experts across the nation.

Kobe Bryant—who once publicly ridiculed management for failing to trade the team’s young players for proven veteran talent—has rallied around Andrew, even conceding baskets of his own just so he can ensure that #17 is involved in the action.

“I have opportunities to shoot the ball, but instead I try to give him the ball. I want him to get his rhythm, continue to build his confidence and the sky is the limit for him,” Bryant said after the Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns on Christmas Day.

The mentorship provided by Bryant is not lost on Bynum either.

“It’s great to know your hard work is paying off and that he (Bryant) feels like he can win here in L.A.,” said Bynum. “He’s going to play better; he’s going to play harder.”

In his third year, Bynum already understands the pivotal role his teammates have in his success, explaining that “getting more touches deep down on the block” has allowed him to take advantage of his strengths on the floor.

At 7’1”, Bynum credits his spring-like hops and superior length as the two most important attributes that he brings on offense and defense.

“Because of my length, guys box me out, but I’m still able to tip it back to myself,” said Bynum.

After a series of stirring ally-oops from teammates this season, the center has also drawn rave reviews from across the league for his amazing hands and tremendous footwork that is well beyond his years.

According to Andrew, some of that is innate ability, but a large chunk of it comes from hours of hard work before and after practice.

“Hands, we just kind of play football, just kind of gun the football at each other,” said Bynum. “Feet, I work with my trainer and we do agility stuff all the time like the wobble-board balance thing.”

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