Andrew Bynum played well yesterday in helping the Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder, 90-87. Really well. Game MVP well. His stat line, 16 points on 5-7 shooting, 6-8 from the free throw line, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks, with no turnovers and only one personal foul, is the type of line that makes conversations like "The Lakers are unwilling to trade Andrew Bynum for Carmelo Anthony" seem a little less crazy. It was one of his best games this year, and when context is taken into account, probably his most influential of the season. Such games are a rarity for Drew this season, not because he has often failed to make an impact, but because his impact is rarely so easily recognized. If one were to describe Bynum's season in a single word, that word could very well be understated. That such a word could be used to describe big Drew makes me smile, because there was a time, not so very long ago, when understated was the last word he would want to describe his game.
Andrew Bynum has lofty goals, and always has. He is a confident, brash, young man. In terms of mentality and belief in self, he's a lot more Kobe Bryant than he is Pau Gasol. His goals (to say nothing of his drive and/or skills) fall well short of the Mamba's, but the same thing could be said of ... well, everybody. Drew wants to be recognized as the best center in the game. He has repeatedly stated his desire to be an All-Star. Such pursuits are not worthy of criticism; in fact, I'd be upset if he didn't harbor the desire for these individual glories. However, on a team full of talented players, a team in which he is, at best, the third option, the desire for individual glory can be a conflict of interest with the team's overall vision. Andrew Bynum wants to be a 20-10 guy, while the coaches would be happier if Drew focused on rebounding and defense and let the scoring come as it may.
Yesterday, the scoring came, but what if it hadn't? What if Drew didn't shoot the ball well, or even worse (in Drew's mind), didn't get to shoot much at all? Hell, considering the dude only got seven shots, it's not as if he got that many chances as it is, so what would have happened if Drew's number got called even less? Would it have made a difference as to how involved Drew was in the other aspects of the game? More and more this season, the answer to that question has become a resounding No.
In seasons past, Drew's effort had a direct relationship with his involvement in the game. The more he saw the ball on the offensive end, the higher his level of engagement on the other side of the ball. The relationship wasn't dramatic or pronounced, but it was there. To be clear, the attitude of Andrew Bynum was never more than a minor and secondary problem, way down on the list of issues that needed to be solved, but its just one more straw on the back of the camel which, thankfully for us Laker fans, never seems to actually break. These maturity issues have been present as much off the court as on it. From questionable photos of AB with Playboy Playmates on his shoulder while recovering from surgery and of Drew "making it rain" in the club, to the well known storyline that Drew delayed his most recent off-season surgery to take in the World Cup (a delay that cost him a fair chunk of this season), Drew's ability to put the team ahead of his own desires has always been a question mark.
This season, something has changed in Drew. Whether it is because he joined his teammates late in the season and is building his way back up, whether its because he finally made a significant contribution to a champion and knows about the individual sacrifice required for that ultimate team prize, or whether it is simply the natural progression and maturity of a young dude figuring things out in life, Andrew Bynum is no longer affected by his involvement in the game. He knows his job, and that job is to be the anchor of the defense. And, since the team is allowing nearly five points less per 100 possessions that he is on the court (best on the team by a fair margin), he is clearly a very good anchor. You want proof? You always want proof, so here it is.
Andrew Bynum is seeing the lowest usage of any season since the arrival of Pau Gasol, only using 19.1% of his team's possessions. Such low usage in seasons past would have affected his effort in rebounding and defense. This season, however, Andrew also has the highest rebounding % (17.0) and block % (5.2) of the Pau Gasol era. None of these numbers match his breakout 2008 season, but the addition of a second 7 footer was always bound to have an impact on Drew's individual numbers. That's a broad strokes view, but the fine print shows this new-found maturity in greater detail. Last season, Drew had less than 10 field goal attempts a total of 27 times, and in those 27 games, he managed 10 rebounds just twice. This season, Drew has already had less than 10 field goal attempts 25 times, and he's reached double figures in rebounding 7 times. In terms of averages, in last season's < 10 FGA games, Drew averaged just 5.96 rebounds, nearly 3 less than his season average of 8.3; in this season's, he's averaged 7.36, just short of his overall season average of 7.7 (the decline in total season average is entirely minutes based). The same relationship can be seen in his blocks, which increased from 1.44 in last season's low usage games, to 1.76 this season. Judging by points instead of field goal attempts, Drew is averaging 6.9 rebounds this season in games in which he scored less than 10 points, as compared to 5.5 rebounds last season. He has three single doubles (less than 10 points, more than 10 rebounds) this season, and had none last year.
And now the finest brush of all. The single best evidence of Drew's mental improvement can be seen from a recent game. Not yesterday's, not Friday's game against the Clippers that brought a line of 16 points and 11 boards. No, Drew's most impressive game this week, at least from a maturity stand point, came against the Atlanta Hawks. In that game, Bynum scored a measly 5 points. He took three shots, and was sent to the free throw line twice. That's 5 possessions used, in just under 26 minutes of game time. Drew wasn't uninvolved in the offense against the Hawks, he was completely invisible. Maybe that invisibility is what helped him bring down 15 rebounds, or block another 3 shots. You want evidence of maturity? How about bringing down more offensive rebounds than you attempted shots. An offensive rebound is sometimes considered a God-given right to put up a shot, and can be especially so in the hands of a young man that can not get shots via any other method. But, despite having his number called in that game less than often than a bad Bingo player, Drew clearly didn't feel the need to force shots, even when he earned them. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the new Andrew Bynum.
Yesterday, Andrew Bynum played a great game. He scored a decent amount of points, brought down a good amount of boards, and blocked a great amount of shots. It's hardly the first time Drew has done any of those things, nor the first time he's done them all in the same game. What yesterday's game is, is a perfect example of his ever-increasing maturity. Yesterday's game shows that he "gets" it now, because the rebounding and defense are there, and the scoring is coming as it may. Yesterday, it just so happened to come, but it's the games in which it doesn't that make me think Drew has reached a new level of maturity. Whether the Lakers have been wise to keep Drew in the face of repeated opportunities to flip him for a bigger name in a trade is one question. Whether Drew will ever be able to move past a troubled injury history is another. But the question of whether Drew has the mental capability to act in the best interests of his team, even if those interests are in conflict with his own, has been well and truly answered.