by Sean SweeneyAndrew Bynum

When someone thinks about the Lakers, normally the first person that comes to mind is Kobe. Then Phil Jackson. Maybe Ron Artest, Jerry Buss or the Laker Girls. There aren’t too many people, even fans, who think Andrew Bynum when they talk about the purple and gold.

There is this attitude out there that the just-turned 22-year-old is a decent young player, albeit one that can’t stay healthy. Others would call him overrated, another young kid whose injuries are used as an excuse. But check out his numbers through the first 10 games this season: over 19 points, 12 rebounds and almost 2 blocks a game. Those are All-Star numbers, Tim Duncan-type numbers. Even though comparing the Big Fundamental with the Big Knee Brace is asinine, Andrew Bynum could be your starting Western Conference center February 14 in Dallas. Let me repeat: he turned 22 four days before Halloween.

This is the third straight November everyone has heard it: Bynum is starting to get comfortable and develop. If he keeps this up…L.A. is unbeatable. Everyone knows what happened after that. In 2008, the Green Machine, with KG bullying Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, jumped the Bynum-less Lakers. Last year, Bynum did return for the playoffs but had little impact. The Lakers won anyway.

Bynum is having his annual early season breakout again, but this one feels different. Before, most of his offense came on lobs from Bryant or dump-downs from one of the versatile bigs. Now, he is ripping rebounds away from everyone, even his own teammates. He is trying to perfect that old Shaq spin move. And he’s hitting running hooks with both hands. Thanks, Kareem.

Last week in Denver, while the rest of the Lakers were busy taking their usual one-night-a-week off and even Kobe was shooting air balls against Arron Afflalo, Bynum was putting in work. He wasn’t content to concede the game, staying true to early season claims that he was going to get up and down the court quickly enough to get position. Most importantly, he wasn’t standing around looking for 24 to bail them out. It was a new Bynum. Not excited about a good five-minute stretch or a dunk anymore, he was building something even in defeat.

Bynum has stated several times that he wants to be an all-star this year. Right now, his waves are gaining steam, ready to splash down on everything. You know things are changing fast when Stu Lantz is pleading, “You’ve got to feed him the ball!” four or five times a game.

There are a lot of potentially dominant big guys in the League. Most of them will never materialize. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Perhaps many of them were babied as kids, too large for advice but big enough to slip by. Bynum seems different. He’s not an animal like Garnett or an explosive athlete like Dwight Howard. He’s a finesse cat. But, he has length and touch. And a work ethic.

Kobe’s teammates will always be measured against his will and determination. It’s a lost situation. The Machine better concentrate on making open jumpers first. But, based on Bynum’s work with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during his first few years, he deserves credit for making himself better. Hardly anyone will agree that parting ways with the Laker legend was a good thing, but everyone can see Bynum soaked in a lot.

Every season, he has come back with a softer touch around the hoop and this year he is even hitting short turnaround jumpers. His footwork is much better now and that’s a case not only of the Hall of Famer showing him how to seal on the drop step, but also the mental maturation of the young pivot.

The Lakers described the separation between the two as just aAndrew Bynum natural progression. No one can count on Bynum to be a force every night when he still has a baby sitter. The team needs him to be a big boy now.

Anyone who plays for the Lakers has to know the history of the NBA’s preeminent franchise. There are only a few other teams where role players can become icons. You can bet Odom was thinking about Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes, great players who became greater by being a part of championship teams, when he re-signed this summer.

Surely, Bynum knows the names Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal. Their history, like a lot of stuff in the organization, is about rings, scoring records and Top 50 proclamations. All of those guys are all-timers and all four of them will inevitably have some of their Laker records taken by Bynum. Given the progress he’s already made, don’t be so quick to discount the St. Joseph High School product. He’s just improving too fast.

Bynum probably still remembers his sick pivot and slam on one of Shaq’s returns to Los Angeles as his NBA arrival. Back then, he was just a teenager, galloping around as if he was just learning what his 7-foot body could do.

Now, he’s the NBA’s biggest enigma. A star? Not yet, but oh so close. Important piece? Hell yes. The baby-faced Bynum may ultimately decide who walks away with the championship in June. Will he continue his progression towards the All-NBA team? Or will he fail to step up his game in the playoffs, tapping out like he did last year amidst rust and injury?

Bynum’s ultimate test would be Lakers and Celtics. And at 22, southern California is asking him to be their Clydesdale.

When people start thinking about the Lakers, they better start mentioning Bynum as a centerpiece. He’s going to make sure of that. Just hope the Lakers hold him out whenever they play the Grizzlies.