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Inside the NBA | SUNDAY REPORT

Bynum's talents aren't staying hidden

January 28, 2007|Mark Heisler

The franchise that gave you George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal gives you ...

Andrew Bynum?

Actually, to this point, the Lakers are giving you Kwame "What Cake?" Brown as their starter when he's healthy.

As far as they're concerned, there's plenty of time to start jumping up and down about Bynum, their 19-year-old stealth phenom. Rather than hype, he's getting the mushroom treatment, kept in the dark and fed lots of fertilizer.

Not that they don't know what they have. A Lakers official, asked if he would trade Bynum for Kevin Garnett, said he'd have to think about that.

James Worthy saw it, noting Bynum's "Hall of Fame potential" on pre-game shows.

Nevertheless, until Bynum's greatness arrives, the Lakers are making sure he doesn't get a big head by handing it to him periodically. Last week when he made an innocuous comment, saying he'd like to keep starting, Coach Phil Jackson said, "He's not old enough to determine that."

It's only beginning to dawn on people around the league that the Lakers may have hooked on to something special with that No. 10 pick in the 2005 draft.

NBA people are obsessing on Ohio State's Greg Oden. The Lakers already have an Oden-level prospect in Bynum, the first unhyped phenom of the new millennium.

One GM calls the bearded Oden "a once-in-20-years-player." The smooth-faced Bynum is more like a big puppy, but with his size, athleticism and, most of all, with his astonishing leap from an overweight high school senior, if he's not as good as Oden, he's not far away.

Showing how much cachet Bynum now enjoys, the GM also said he'd take him over Texas' Kevin Durant, who is compared to a young Garnett by pro scouts.

Bynum says he weighed 295 pounds in high school. Converting players' math to ours, it may have been 300-plus (a lot.) His coach told our Mike Bresnahan, "I question his mentality," and, noting their early exit in the state tournament, asked, "If he's an NBA player now, how do I lose in the first round?"

With no great centers in his class, Bynum was a McDonald's All-American. The Lakers saw him at the game in South Bend, Ind., and put him down as too heavy.

Several weeks later, NBA teams were invited to a workout after Bynum's AAU coach, James Marshall, put him through a crash conditioning program. Lakers assistant GM Ronnie Lester attended and changed his mind on the spot.

The Lakers worked Bynum out in secret before the Chicago pre-draft camp. This time Mitch Kupchak was there, too, along with Jim Buss.

Then they worked him out in secret here for Jackson, who liked him. Nevertheless, Bynum hadn't even turned 18 and there was little chance he would be much help to Jackson, who was on only a three-year deal.

The decision-making process could go down in Lakers history with Jerry West trading Vlade Divac, getting Kobe Bryant and setting them up to sign Shaquille O'Neal in 1996.

Even with Jackson returning, as if borne by angels after a 33-49 season, the organization stayed on its timetable, not his.

Jerry Buss had always been willing to gamble. Jim helped persuade him -- over the phone to Europe, where his father was vacationing -- that drafting Bynum instead of North Carolina's Sean May was worth another gamble.

It's not uncommon to see teams take fliers on talented young fat people. What is uncommon is to see them turn into big-time players.

Bynum was so far away in his first summer league, Kupchak repeated that they had no plans to play him much last season -- or this.

Even after Bynum's big moment when he dunked over O'Neal in January and his 16-point breakout against the Knicks two weeks later, he wasn't in this season's rotation until the Lakers ran out of centers.

Bynum was spectacular at the start of the season, even if he would have fouled out by halftime if they had left him on the floor -- if he hadn't collapsed first.

Jackson started Brown as soon as he returned, but Brown was hurt again and Bynum kicked it up to yet another level with better stamina and fewer fouls.

"He's been inconsistent but I'll say this, he's worked hard at his game," said Jackson last week.

"He's trying to prove a lot. He's learning some things that I think are important to learn. A lot of it's about defense, about getting back on defense, about recovering, about how to play help defense."

Bynum is now No. 16 in the league in rebounds per minute, No. 4 in blocks per minute and moving up fast, with 32 and 11 in his last two games.

"I think he's terrific," said Golden State's Don Nelson. "What is he, 20 years old? We have a 20-year-old center [Andris Biedrins] and [Bynum] was taking rebounds right over the top of our guy, who is a great rebounder.

"He's just loaded with talent."

It's been an amazing season, even if the Lakers have leveled off. Before it started I saw a nightmare scenario: a disappointing finish, Kobe Bryant concluding they were dead-ended and asking out, Jackson retiring.

No one thought of Bynum as a factor this season, much less an equation-changer, but everything has changed.

*

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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