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MARK HEISLER

Lakers' Andrew Bynum has grown up and grown healthy — and just in time

The 7-foot center has entered the postseason in good physical shape for a change, and he has come to terms with his role on the team.

April 21, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Lakers center Andrew Bynum reacts to a call during the Lakers' victory over New Orleans in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals on Thursday. Bynum has been healthy and productive for the Lakers in the postseason.
Lakers center Andrew Bynum reacts to a call during the Lakers' victory… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)

Springtime in Lakerdom for Andrew....

This was a long time coming for Andrew Bynum, in his sixth season as a player, his fourth as a starter, but his first postseason as a healthy one.

Happily for the Lakers, who have aged while waiting for him, this is the spring it happened or they'd have worse problems than their urgency level.

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Twice-defending champions or not, the Lakers without a healthy 'Drew?

No longer conceivable.

"If he was somewhere else, he might get more minutes and shots and score more," said Sacramento Coach Paul Westphal. "For the Lakers, with him, they're a totally different team.

"That's how you know you have a great team. A lot of teams have one or two guys who can put up big-time numbers.

"When you have three or four who can and don't have to, you have a great team."

After three springs in which Lakerdom got a crash course in the structure of the human knee, few could even imagine Bynum as a postseason force.

In 2008, he missed the playoffs because of his "subluxed" kneecap.

In 2009, he was slowed by his torn MCL.

Last spring he was saluted for playing with a tear of the "anterior horn of his lateral meniscus."

In bad times, his name was on everyone's lips ... as the player Lakerdom wanted to trade.

In February, talk radio rang with calls to send him to Denver for Carmelo Anthony, a nonstory ESPN kept hyping ... possibly as the brainchild of someone on the roster.

This was nothing compared with the 'Drew-for-Jason Kidd non-trade in the summer of 2007, endorsed by Kobe Bryant in his famous parking lot video during his days of rage.

The 2006-07 season had ended with Kwame Brown, who had recently thrown a cake at a fan in a prank gone wrong that stands as his signature moment, as the Lakers' starter.

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Bynum had startling flashes but wasn't in NBA condition and fouled everything that moved.

Going into the last season on his contract, looking as though his chief function would be to soothe Bryant into returning, Coach Phil Jackson thought he'd be well into his final retirement when Bynum was ready.

Instead, 'Drew broke out in the 2007-08 season, turning Bryant around before the Lakers got Gasol and Kobe openly declared he was back with the program.

Bynum was up to 19 points and 12 rebounds for the first two weeks of January when he suffered his first knee injury.

He would suffer more but, despite everything, kept coming.

In 2009, he was hurt again, then made it back but was benched during the playoffs, whereupon his agent, David Lee, made distress calls to team officials and press people alike, insisting 'Drew couldn't play for Phil.

Last season, he was hurt again, limited through the postseason, but kept his starting job.

This season, coming off surgery, he started late, looking heavy and slow, prompting more grumbling among insiders.

At the All-Star break as the first 'Melo-'Drew rumors surfaced, Jackson and Bynum met to discuss his role.

It was the same old role — defend, rebound, leave the scoring to Pau Gasol — Bynum had resisted to this point.

Voila!

In one of Bynum's quantum leaps, this one attitudinal, he embraced it, averaging 11 points, 12 rebounds and 2.4 blocks after the break.

"I told him the first year, it takes big guys until they're 25 or so to really flesh their game out in the NBA and get a feel for this," Jackson says.

"He was going to have to move along really quickly if I was going to see the fruition during my contract....

"His surge this season came out of a discussion about playing high-level and where he could help our team, defend, rebound — and what his presence means to us.

"We talked about Pau being a nifty scorer and having finesse and that kind of stuff. 'Drew's game is power, but the reality is he can fill that gap that we need inside. There are nights when he has to do that."

Says Bynum: "It's fun, actually. I didn't realize that it could be fun and it is."

At 23, he's shy, soft-spoken and low-key, and reveals little.

On the court, for someone who arrived so young and so far behind, he has shown himself to be amazingly aggressive, from the moment Miami's Shaquille O'Neal dunked on him when he was an 18-year-old rookie and Bynum went to the other end, demanded the ball and dunked on Shaq.

"It feels good, but I've got to make it out of the first round," Bynum says.

"I was all right last year and then I got hurt in OKC. I'll keep going, hopefully."

Actually, when Bynum hyperextended the knee in Game 6 against the Thunder last spring, he was just back from sitting out the last four weeks of the season.

As for the bad times ... what bad times?

When he was benched during the 2009 playoffs, Bynum declared a press boycott that few noticed since people weren't lining up to talk to him.

His mentor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, talked to him about it, lamenting, "There's only so much influence I have."

Says Bynum now: "I really don't remember it. I'm sorry."

Maybe it's generational. The Lakers, most of whom are a generation or two ahead of him too, will take him, just as he is.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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