Originally published in SLAM 159

by Jake Appleman | @JakeAppleman

This is a feature on Andrew Bynum, but Andrew Bynum is grounded, so he won’t appear until about a third of the way through the story. If you follow basketball, you probably understand why Andrew Bynum is grounded. It’s not that we necessarily think Andrew Bynum should be grounded, especially considering the way some of the NBA’s other elite paint presences have acted this season. It’s just that society and this suffocating 24-hour news cycle has us by the balls. Don’t worry though, Drew is doing his homework. That’s right, he’s shooting threes.

There are some days in Los Angeles when the only normality is the high-volume traffic. Take a Friday in late March. It’s so chilly that the natives apologize on behalf of the weather. The Lakers are home to play the Portland Trail Blazers and upside down SoCal continues inside the regulated confines of the Staples Center.

Ramon Sessions, the Lakers’ new X-factor acquisition, gives an interview during which he’s asked seriously to opine on his dog, Sesh. Just so it’s clear: The dog of a point guard who has never averaged more than 30 mpg for a full season creates news.

Over by the visitor’s locker room, Kaleb Canales, the 33-year-old wunderkind interim head coach of the Blazers, is speaking. Canales, a Mexican-American who rose up from video coordinator, answers questions in Spanish and flashes an obvious knowledge of the game without divulging too much information on the matchup. Lakers coach Mike Brown is also a former video coordinator with no NBA playing experience. Prodded by a local media member to praise his enemy of a similar background, Brown offers a meek, “Go video coordinators!” to mark the occasion.

The game tips off. The Lakers take the lead and never give it up. Canales’ Blazers battle from buzzer to buzzer, coming within a point of the Lakers on four separate fourth-quarter occasions.

Kobe Bryant, ever conspicuous no matter what he’s up to, does his part in keeping things close, shooting 5-17, including 11 straight misses after a 5-6 start. It was only six days ago, following the Lakers’ previous home game, when Bryant partially blamed his poor shooting for a surprising loss to the Jazz. “I shot like shit,” he says. Bryant blamed unforced errors, his included, for the loss. “Unforced means dribbling shit off your foot,” he says, before concluding: “I mean, you can feel it when you’re playing like shit.”

The natural result of all of this (less than a week later) is that Kobe, riding 11 straight misses, banks in a free throw with the game decided and the crowd chants M-V-P for the lightning-rod legend. Fans also receive tacos because Bryant’s free throws push the Lakers past 100 points. And damn, what’s more valuable than a free taco?

Lost in the extracurricular noise is Andrew Bynum, the Lakers’ starting center and best player on this particular night—28 points, 12-20 shooting, 9 rebounds, 1 turnover. Bynum dominated early on, scoring 6 of the first 8 Lakers points as they jumped out to an 8-2 advantage.

When he posts up, Bynum, named an All-Star for the first time this past February, uses his massive hands to palm the ball and, arms extended, holds it out like his own personal keep-away toy. The shot clock ticks down, but it feels like time stands still, and for a few fleeting moments, the reality that we’re in the throes of the Point Guard Era vanishes in the presence of this growing tree. Bynum’s nimble footwork around the paint and his interplay with a pass-happy Pau Gasol are also positive developments.

Bynum would have been the best player on the court vs Portland had LaMarcus Aldridge not gone for 29 and 9, but Aldridge could still recognize that Bynum is blossoming.

“Imagine guarding somebody that’s 7-2 with a high release that shoots it about nine foot in the air and the rim is 10 foot,” Aldridge says.

Actually, it almost is hard to imagine Bynum back then, before an odd three-week stretch from late March into early April sullied his reputation and made countless fans and scribes mad about a litany of minor incidents.

A quick recap: Five days after the victory over the Trail Blazers, Bynum was benched for hoisting a three-pointer in transition, in the flow of a close game against Golden State. The basketball-obsessed on Twitter did what felt like one giant, collective WTF. Bynum said he didn’t understand why he was benched. After a victory over the Hornets, Bynum said instead of participating in team huddles when he was on the bench, he was, “getting my Zen on.”

Bynum was fined an undisclosed amount of money by the Lakers for “numerous infractions” detrimental to the team, which included apparently blowing off a meeting with general manager Mitch Kupchak. This meeting may have been called to discuss the need for Bynum to not obliquely criticize his coach, as “getting my Zen on,” whether intentional or not, references Phil Jackson. Jackson would be impossible to replace in any circumstance and Mike Brown knows this, as in title-happy Los Angeles a metaphorical scud missile is almost always aimed at his job security.

The follies continued when Blake Griffin posterized Pau Gasol; Bynum seemingly enjoyed it, making a face that sent Twitter into a tizzy once again. Then, for the second time in 10 games, Bynum was ejected against the Houston Rockets, the latter send-off for jawing at the Rockets’ bench.

His teammates seem to be on his side. One of them, conveniently named World Peace, defended his last ejection, saying talking trash is “the essence of basketball.”

Bryant told reporters: “I think he was testing the limits of his game. In some ways, the edginess and chippiness of him makes it very easy for me to relate to him because I had some of that when I was young. It’s easy for me to see where he’s coming from.”

The internet wasn’t so kind. The words “child,” “brat” and “petulant” popped up as if the people doing the criticizing knew Bynum intimately. It was as if Bynum, literally the longest-tenured 24-year-old in NBA history, was Bart Simpson and the pundits were Mrs. Krabappel begging him to repent by writing on an iDraw chalkboard. I will not pull up for three because that is not my game…I will not laugh when my teammates get dunked on…I will not pick up a second technical engaging Samuel Dalembert….

Of course, Bynum responded a few games later in mature fashion: by becoming only the fifth Laker ever to grab 30 rebounds in a game in a victory over San Antonio. After the game, despite his heroics, Bynum criticized himself for shooting 7-20.

And that’s the thing about Andrew Bynum: For every faux pas, there’s a big game. For every slip up, there’s a moment of thoughtfulness that hints at an intelligent youngster finding his way through the maze of NBA stardom. Because as long as he doesn’t lay out another opponent like he did JJ Barea last May, he will ultimately be judged by rings rather than regular-season things.

“I think Bynum’s composure—just like the rest of us, but especially him—is tested every night,” Brown says. “And I say that because this is the first time that he’s been double-teamed like he has been. A lot of people, when they watch the games, they’re like, ‘Man he gets double-teamed.’ Well sometimes, but a lot of times he gets triple-teamed…That’s gotta be a pain in the behind, especially when you know you’re skilled enough to score on this single guy in single coverage.”

The transgressions and the ensuing vitriol mask the fact that Bynum had—by far—the best regular season of his career, averaging 18.7 and 11.8 in 35.2 minutes per—all career highs. In fact, thanks to Dwight Howard’s back problems and coach problems and media circus-creating problems…Bynum may be this season’s best offensive center. And for all the criticism Bynum’s dealt with, thanks to Dwight, he’s not even the most offensive All-Star big in basketball.

It’s easy to see that on a team with two aging greats, Bynum is both the Lakers’ present and their future, and it suddenly makes sense that he breezed through trade rumors and the nixed Chris Paul deal unscathed. Some credit Bynum’s close relationship with the owner’s son, Jim Buss, for his untouchable status, but really, who trades their best asset when the asset hasn’t even—and we mean this in stock parlance—fully matured?

“I didn’t think he would progress as quickly as  he has,” Brown says. “Especially once he started scoring and the double-teams started coming. He’s doing a nice job now. The great part about it is he still has a long way to go and he still has a ceiling, room to still improve.”

Adding Sessions was a positive step in aiding Bynum’s development as well, especially in the pick-and-roll game. Extricated from the triangle offense, the Lakers can now roll with basketball’s most common play.

“It’s so fun,” Bynum says. “It’s so fun, ’cause they did it to us every game. Play after play after play, so now we put the same pressure on them, which is great.”

Brown believes with pick-and-roll improvement, Bynum can take the next step: “If he can ever get to the point where you see Dwight sprinting in the ball screens and rolling with force to the rim; if he does that, oh my gosh. It’s lights out. The kid, that’s how skilled he is.”

“There’s always room to grow and we definitely can,” Bynum says after the loss to the Jazz. He was speaking about the Lakers’ on-court product, but he might as well have been talking about himself.