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He's growing on them

Bynum can be expected to make a teenager's mistakes, but the Lakers like what they see of their 7-footer

December 10, 2006|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

Where was Andrew Bynum?

The time: last season. The place: the Lakers' El Segundo training headquarters.

The missing person: the team's first-round pick in the 2005 NBA draft.

"Right in the middle of practice, he just disappeared," Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis said.

Rambis finally found the 7-foot, 285-pounder sitting on a table in the trainer's room eating handfuls of Froot Loops cereal.

After doing a double take, Rambis asked Bynum why he wasn't out on the floor with his teammates.

"I was feeling lightheaded," Bynum told him.

"So you're eating Froot Loops?" Rambis said. "You don't just leave practice without telling somebody."

Rambis smiled as he told the story last week. It's hard to be upset with Bynum, whose raw talent is matched by a congenial personality. The Lakers' front office and coaching staff are impressed by Bynum's size, excited about his potential, and pleased with his attitude.

As for those Froot Loops moments, they keep telling themselves, he's still a kid.

He was only 17 when the Lakers selected him with the 10th pick, the youngest player ever taken in the draft. Bynum came directly out of St. Joseph High in Metuchen, N.J. He was six days past his 18th birthday when he appeared in his first NBA game, the youngest ever to take the court.

And then this season, after having averaged only 7.4 minutes in 46 games last season, all as a reserve, he suddenly found himself thrown into the starting lineup at 19 when ankle surgery ended Chris Mihm's season before it started and an injured shoulder sidelined Kwame Brown.

"Forget basketball," Rambis said. "There's a lot going on with any kid at this age just in terms of maturity. They are still developing. They have a lot to learn about life and about themselves. Having to grow up on a stage like this can be very difficult."

As Bynum discovered.

He started the first 14 games this season, had 18 points and nine rebounds in his first game, then went on to block four shots in a single game and have two double-doubles.

But after getting 12 points and 13 rebounds against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 19, Bynum began to fade, producing a total of only 16 points and 18 rebounds over the next four games.

His energy level noticeably changed.

"You could see him running well up and down the court for the first three minutes he was in there," Rambis said, "and then he seemed to get slower and slower and slower."

When Bynum was late to a pregame warmup, Coach Phil Jackson pulled the plug, replacing him in the starting lineup with Brown.

"The biggest thing we could teach him ... is a work ethic," Jackson said in explaining his move to the media. "That's what we really are striving for."

The coach closest to Bynum is Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose sole job, other than an occasional session with Brown, is serving as a mentor for Bynum. Abdul-Jabbar has remained supportive despite Bynum's return to the bench.

"I don't think we have a problem," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It was just a misunderstanding on [Bynum's] part. I don't see it as a long-term thing. He wants to play and he is working hard to earn his minutes. I don't think we will be talking about this again."

Bynum concedes that his level of production had fallen in the games before he lost his starting job.

"My energy level was low," he said. "I think it was because of poor nutrition and lack of sleep."

Bynum said he was living on fast food and sleeping about 7 1/2 hours a night after staying up as late as 1:30 a.m.

But that, he says, has all changed. He is working with a nutritionist, taking vitamins, trying to go to bed before midnight and sleeping a minimum of nine hours when the Lakers schedule permits.

"The job has to come first," Bynum said. "A career in the NBA usually lasts 10 to 12 years. I will have a lot of time after that to do everything I want to do."

His high school coach, Mark Taylor, watching from afar, is surprised at how quickly Bynum has adapted to the NBA, but not surprised his former player is undergoing growing pains.

"He's going to go through highs and lows," Taylor said. "He's still so young. Personally, I would have liked to have seen him go to [the University of Connecticut] for a year or two. But L.A. is where he wanted to go, and he's having an impact."

Bynum, averaging 7.4 points and 5.4 points in 18.8 minutes, has impressed the Lakers with his appetite for learning at both ends of the court, his desire to play defense as strong as his desire to put the ball through the hoop.

Abdul-Jabbar sits in a Staples Center seat during the game, taking notes on every move his young pupil makes.

"I go over everything with him afterward, good and bad," Abdul-Jabbar said. "And he is very receptive."

Whether it's Bynum's enriched diet, improved sleep pattern or simply another upswing on the roller-coaster ride of his life, Bynum again impressed Jackson with his play against the Indiana Pacers last week.

"[He] played with the kind of energy we want him to play with," Jackson said.

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