by Doobie Okon

Flashes. Some careers are highlighted by them. Their legacies are often then haunted. Flashes of greatness. Flashes of what-could-be. Flashes of potential that was never fully reached.

The reason for each unfortunate player’s ‘missed’ opportunities is always different. Some are riddled with injury. Those are either the weaker, injury-prone athletes or just the straight, unlucky hobbled ones. Then there are the players whose max potential could only result in these inconsistent flashes. You know… inhabiting some raw talent that really could never be transformed into greatness.

And what’s worse is that the debate surrounding these reasons is usually never clear. So with that, we come to Lakers‘ center, Andrew Bynum.

It feels like Bynum has already been in the League forever. Well, a six-year career for any 23-year-old must feel exactly like that. As long as the current draft rules remain that no player can go straight from high school to the NBA, Bynum will forever stay the youngest player to be drafted (at 17 years, 244 days) and play in an NBA game (18 years, 6 days).

Clearly, that alone speaks to Bynum’s obvious potential back when he was in high school. And in those six professional seasons since, Drew has played both well below and well above expectations. But why?

Is the answer to Bynum’s inconsistent ways all results of injuries? His disabled periods are well known throughout the League, especially when you consider that the 7-footer suffered injuries to both knees in two straight years. That’s an absolute nightmare for any position, but a center needs to be mobile, swift and limber in order to defend, block and use his legs to outmaneuver opponents. If your knees are shot, you’re just a useless tree down in the paint. See: Greg Oden.

It was difficult to even track down where Bynum ranked among centers regarding his statistics since he technically only qualified in his sophomore season, ‘06-07, playing in all 82 games and starting in 53. With the exception of that season, Bynum has only participated in 50 games per year.

And even when he does play, the L.A. center has only averaged 24.3 minutes a game for his career. I’ll tell you what: No matter how good you are or how much potential you have, only playing in halves of half of each season’s games will not get it done.

His offensive numbers are by no means brilliant, too. His career high for points per season was 15.0 back in ’09-10 and is only putting up 10.5 a contest in his first six years. Whether he’s underutilized offensively or not, his numbers are a tad underwhelming for a supposed star.

Therefore, many will argue Bynum’s place on this list and if he even should be here at all. It’s understandable when you consider his lacks of consistency, experience (per year) and offensive dominance.

But others may see a different side to the debate. This list marks the 50 best players going into the upcoming year. And the easiest way to predict the upcoming year is by looking back at the most recent one… so, Andrew, what have you done for us lately?

Well, things didn’t start out well last season at all, as Bynum was heavily criticized for delaying surgery and repairs to his knee over the summer in order to take vacations. These delays caused him to miss the first 24 games of the season, but to his credit, only missed four games the rest of the year.

His points per contest were still down at 11.3, but coach Phil Jackson did come out and say that he had discussed with Bynum toning down the scoring in an effort to maximize his focus on the defensive end. Bynum became a key contributor the second half of the year, averaging 15.6 boards in a seven-game stretch in March and contributing 12 double-doubles after the All-Star break. He also had 2.0 blocks per game last year, good for sixth in the NBA.

And he was a force in the postseason, finally. In 2009 and 2010, Bynum did play in every single game of both Lakers’ championship runs, but never really stood out in a series, maybe with the exception of the 2010 opening round against OKC.

Although L.A. got broomed by the eventual champion Mavericks, it was no fault of Bynum’s. When Zen allowed Bynum to take more shots and see more minutes, he gave Dallas fits. In both games 2 and 3, Andrew served 37 extremely efficient minutes, putting up 18/13 in Game 2 and 21/10 the following contest.

But it was the previous series against New Orleans where he really excelled. Had Bynum grabbed one more measly board in both Games 1 and 4 against the Hornets, he would have recorded double-doubles in all six matchups. Chris Paul might be remembered the most in that series for his phenomenal efforts in a losing cause, but had the Lakers center not shined, Paul and his crew might’ve just beat the two-time defending champs.

And of course, as usual with Andrew Bynum, the good comes with the bad. Though he played like an animal in the postseason, he also behaved like one when he landed a vicious elbow on JJ Barea’s chest in a fit of frustration as the Dallas series was ending. He has about three feet and 300 pounds on Barea, so the flagrant wrestling move along with his topless exit made for an ugly and angry scene.

So, yes, Bynum might have some attitude issues, but fortunately he is only turning 24 next month. He has light years to firmly cement his final legacy, whatever it may be. It was a good sign to see him publicly apologize for the Barea incident and an even better sign to see his level of play over the last few months of the season.

He seems ready to take that next step into the upper echelon of NBA centers, and being that the 5 position is at such a premium these days, he can easily be labeled as one of the best if he stays healthy, hungry and focused.

Bynum is the youth on an aging group. The current Lakers can still accomplish special things together, but Bynum will be the most important piece in the coming years should L.A. choose to pick up their team option on him next season and extend him after that. If the Lakers choose to go another way at the center position, another team will have to pay Bynum handsomely for his services. But he’s overcome all the injuries and hardships so far, and given his age and massive potential, he probably will be worth that mega-million risk to turn those flashes into one sterling career.

Congratulations on finally making the Top 50, Andrew. Come back again next year.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.