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Lakers' pivotal deal is done

This could be the crowning moment for a franchise that took a chance on hidden jewel

October 31, 2008|MARK HEISLER | Heisler is a Times staff writer.

Talk about increasing your kid's allowance . . .

Andrew Bynum was like a colt when he got here at 17, all arms, legs and wide eyes, with no lines in his face or clues about what he was in for.

He's definitely a grown man now, 21 years old (since Monday) with a $57.4-million contract extension (since Thursday).

It was a bold move by the Lakers, who had all the leverage and could have waited this season to see if there were any complications from the arthroscopic surgery on Bynum's left knee.

On the other hand, with an average salary of $14.35 million instead of the maximum $17 million, the Lakers just got about a $10-million discount over four seasons (three guaranteed, the fourth at the team's option, limiting its exposure in case of catastrophic injury).

Add in another $10 million in luxury tax and the Lakers just saved about $20 million.

Of course, the injury poses a risk, but which of their players doesn't run a risk every time he goes out there?

Aside from that, it's party time in Lakerdom. Do you remember when Greg Oden was considered the best young big man since Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal?

Nowadays that's Bynum.

Only two seasons ago, Bynum still represented a point of contention within the Lakers organization. With owner Jerry Buss saving money to pay his kids' estate tax on the franchise, there were more people than Kobe Bryant who wondered if the owner was willing to go all-in, as he always had.

It was a sensitive point that led to a curious silence. Teams rarely err on the discreet side with prospects, especially young 7-footers, but if someone praised Bynum, all General Manager Mitch Kupchak would say was, "We'll see."

I finally wrote a column in January 2007, midway through Bynum's second season, projecting him as an "Oden-level prospect."

The operative word was level. As promising as Bynum looked with left- and right-handed jump hooks, great hands, nimble feet and a feel for the game (on opening night he had hit two teammates going backdoor with bounce passes for layups), it never occurred to me he was as good as Oden.

There were other NBA people who glimpsed Bynum's possibilities -- notably New York's Isiah Thomas, who asked if he was available the day after the Lakers drafted him -- but they were few and far between.

(One GM I asked to compare Oden and Bynum told me gently that Oden was really going to be great. I think it was a polite way of telling me to get a clue.)

Bynum was the anomaly of anomalies, an overweight late bloomer, as far away from being ready as you could get, who became a hard worker who soaked up coaching.

It started after his unimpressive showing in the McDonald's All-American Game when his AAU coach trimmed 30 pounds off him and invited scouts to a workout in New York. That was where Lakers assistant GM Ronnie Lester picked up on him.

I recently talked to an Eastern team official who said the team didn't even think the workout was worth attending.

"He was fat, lazy, didn't like basketball," the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of Bynum. "He had lost a lot of weight, but we've seen that before."

It's not unusual to see players crash-diet before the NBA draft, such as Michigan's Robert "Tractor" Traylor, who knocked off 50 pounds to get to 275 and went No. 6 in 1998.

Traylor then sent out for mashed potatoes and played his undistinguished NBA career at 300-plus.

(The all-timer was Charles Barkley, who was an Auburn junior weighing . . . a lot . . . when he tried to get down before the 1984 Olympic team tryouts by drinking nothing but orange juice. He wound up in the hospital, came in at 292 and still tore up the camp but was cut by Coach Bob Knight, anyway. In other words, it was like the rest of Barkley's career.)

What is unusual, or unheard of, is to see an overweight, unfocused young man like Bynum turn behaviorally on a dime.

Young as he is in other ways, Bynum not only has good work habits, he does not have an ounce of drama in him, handling all disappointments without complaint.

During contract negotiations with his people anxious, going on frantic -- agent David Lee warned of "consequences" if his client wasn't signed -- Bynum was cool throughout.

In the end, Bynum wanted the security and the Lakers, who had something like the final figure in mind from the beginning, wanted the discount.

There's no missing the impact of his presence. The Lakers blew out their first two opponents this week, with Bynum awful in the first game and pretty good in the second.

You could see it coming for months. Last spring, Bryant, whom Bynum had long since won over, noted, "He's a legitimate 7-1, long-wing-span, natural shot blocker, so add Andrew, it takes us to another level defensively."

The Lakers just added him through 2013. For 29 NBA teams, a cloud just moved across the sun.


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