30 Questions: Can Andrew Bynum lock down the center role?
Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NBA team. Be sure to check out the 30 Questions Index to see them all.
A number of unheralded Kobe sidekicks stepped up (from a fantasy perspective) at various times last season; many of them were forced to do so because of injuries. Lamar Odom missed 26 games last season, resulting in Luke Walton reaching fantasy relevance and even securing a starting job for this season. And the expected center combo of Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm played in a combined 41 games, but all those minutes were had by Brown, since Mihm missed the entire season. It was 19-year-old Bynum who grabbed the remaining minutes, and Bynum's exposure offered a glimpse of a sidekick who might be worthy enough to satisfy even Kobe.
As a 7-footer drafted right out of high school, Bynum never was expected to be rushed into playing time. But he has improved rapidly over his two NBA seasons, averaging 22 minutes per game at center and shooting 55 percent from the field last season. He wasn't the replacement-level player or marginal starter we expected him to be; he was the Lakers' second- or third-best player when he was out there. Combine his youth with his established capacity for improvement and his impressive physical talents, and it gets easier to understand why Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak refused to include Bynum in any deals last season that would have gotten the Lakers their missing piece.
Bynum's primary competition for minutes, Brown and Mihm, are not nearly as highly regarded by the front office. Brown has disappointed each year with the Lakers and has proven to be little more than a capable backup. The Lakers have tried to push him to become the starting center, but his mental lapses -- unnecessary foul trouble still plagues his game, and he is too passive to play through Bryant and Odom -- should relegate him to a backup role again this season. He also is an injury risk, recovering from surgeries to both his ankle and right shoulder. And he is a probable lame duck, with his contract, which includes a $9 million cap figure this season, coming off the books in June. And while Mihm was signed to a three-year contract this summer, he missed all of last season and has proven to be extremely injury-prone. Indeed, with Brown, Mihm and Odom, you can count on minutes being freed by their injuries throughout the season.
Bynum's productivity is worthy of the buzz. In January and February, the two months in which he averaged the most minutes (about 28 per game) in 2006-07, Bynum averaged 9.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Assuming Bynum, now set to be the Lakers' starting center, gets that many minutes per game, we basically are talking about a floor relative to the level of Andris Biedrins last season. While Bynum might not log usual starters' minutes, he has proven he is able to produce whenever he gets a chance. And for where you now can grab him in drafts (average draft position: 93.0), you are in pretty good shape to net a positive return on the investment, even if Bynum simply replicates that capable production over the course of a season.
If Bynum solves a couple of problems -- his high foul rate and the team's depth at center, to name a few -- then we can dream big, fleshing out his production into starter's minutes. Imagine the kind of impact a 19-year-old on his current developmental pace can have someday. Yikes! The Lakers are waiting for someone to step into a role as a consistent scorer and a low-post guy with a presence. If Bynum proves he is up to it, the opportunity is there. The Lakers' management knows it must expedite the rebuilding process, and Bynum has been in the triangle offense for three years, so a rapport with Phil Jackson has been developed. A couple fewer fouls, a few more low-post moves and an organizational push, and we'll have ourselves a perfect fantasy player: a floor as a productive player with a very high ceiling. If you squint hard enough when looking at Bynum, you can see Zydrunas Ilgauskas' production of a few seasons ago. If Kobe's not smiling now, he will be soon enough -- as long as he sticks around.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball and baseball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Adam@TalentedMrRoto.com.
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