Will Andrew Bynum Ever Live Up to Superstar Potential?
Over the last eight years we've seen flashes of greatness, glimpses of lethargy and extensive stretches of absence from the seven-footer. Pre-ordained a superstar by the team that drafted him, the Los Angeles Lakers, Bynum found himself stranded with the Philadelphia 76ers, caught between his potential and the injuries that were attempting to ruin him.
Until now, when those internal abrasions of his have finally succeeded.
Andrew Bynum will undergo season-ending surgery on both knees, source tells Y! Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) March 18, 2013
For most of us, this was inevitable. Not this exact surgery, but the news of Bynum being sidelined for the year.
Since coming to the Sixers in the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade, Bynum hasn't played a second. Numerous setbacks have been suffered and any optimism destroyed. Even amid personal vows to return this season and footage of him taking part in some light drills, the verdict on his campaign had been collectively rendered; he was done for the year.
Logic dictates that Bynum will play again, or at least try to. But it also suggests that the Bynum we will eventually see, isn't the Bynum the Lakers thought they drafted or the Sixers thought they traded for.
Bynum spent the better part of a decade developing into a shell of the athlete he was supposed to be. It took him the most of seven seasons to procure an All-Star berth and even then, there were constant inquiries being lodged into his worth as a foundational pillar.
Escaping Los Angeles and the shadow of Kobe Bryant was supposed to change that. In Philadelphia, he would be The Man, the one through which everything was run. He would become an undeniable superstar.
Instead, he's gone from a headache to a migraine.
Set to enter free agency at season's end, Bynum's future has never been shrouded in more uncertainty than it is now. We know he's going to get paid (all seven-footers do), but by who? For how much? And will he be worth it?
The team that signs him depends on how badly they need him. How much he receives depends on how desperate the market is. And his ability to make good on his pact depends on the answer to the first two questions.
With Bynum, it's not about potential. We know he has it. Plenty of it. To the tune of 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, in fact.
But we also know that he's become a victim of his own promise. He has the physical tools to become a dominant player, so he's been paid like one, been treated like one. Even though he's not one.
Nor will he ever be.
Facing the facts is imperative here. Bynum is only 25, but he's gone under the knife more times than a 60-ounce sirloin being shared by a table of 20. He's missed at least 25 games in five of his eight seasons, and played in a full slate of contests just once. Even the equally as fragile Amar'e Stoudemire notched three full seasons through his eight years.
Upon the 2012-13 crusade's end, Bynum will have appeared in just 392 of a possible 640 regular-season games. Or, as the realists will put it, he'll have sat on the bench for 38.8 percent of his career.
How is someone who has missed nearly 40 percent of his career supposed to become a superstar? How can he be revered alongside a Dwight Howard or even an Amar'e if he hasn't proved to be slightly durable? How is he supposed to reach his potential when he's not on the floor?
He can't, and he won't.
Speaking of which, that "potential" of his may be but a figment of our imagination either way.
Let's assume he comes back healthy next year. Let's even assume that he plays in at least 50 games in each season for the rest of his career (yeah, right). What then?
Favorable presumptions, however mindless, can be made about his health. They can't be made about his effort, his willingness to actualize his so-called destiny.
Bynum's maturity, diligence and capacity to care about his reputation has been reamed to no end. From ill-advised three-pointers to attempting to steal the ball from his own teammates, Bynum never embodied focus or seemingly thought about the consequences of his actions, or lack thereof.
This isn't a apocryphal demeanor that began recently or even upon being drafted. Bynum's commitment to himself, those around him and his future has bordered on nonexistent since high school (via Dave D'Alessandro of the Star-Ledger):
"Everyone here at school says the same thing: What’s wrong with him? Why does he act like that?" says St. Joe’s athletic director Jerry Smith. "He went from someone we’re proud of to someone whose name we don’t even mention anymore."
Bynum’s coach during his Falcons years — that would be 2003-05, his junior and senior seasons — sounds as though he is under no urgent obligation to defend him, because he’s gone seven years without even being asked to give an assessment of any kind about his former center.
"Yeah, I never respond to that kind of request, because Andrew has chosen not to stay in touch for whatever reason, so I just don’t get involved with it," says Mark Taylor, who now coaches the St. Benedict's Prep powerhouse. "I don’t dislike him, and he’ll continue to do well if he can stay healthy, but I’m sure he’s got people who will guide him in times like this."
Such a depiction of Bynum's attitude is disturbing. An absence of drive isn't a void that can just be filled or created. It's inherent; it's something that fuels a need to be better.
Bynum isn't programmed that way, he never has been.
And if we're to believe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and past teammates, he never will be (via D'Alessandro):
When Andrew Bynum was traded from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar bashed him before he got across the Continental Divide, asserting that his prized student always wanted to take shortcuts and "didn’t want me to bother him (by) constantly going over the fundamentals."
About that time, an anonymous Lakers player created untold internet hits by suggesting that "I’ve never met another player in the league who likes basketball less" than Bynum.
Doesn't that make you cringe, hearing about an athlete who has all the means to succeed, but isn't motivated to use them?
I'll never question Bynum's toughness. Few of us can. Physical afflictions vary by person, and we can't pass judgment on a pain threshold that is (possibly) beyond his control.
But we can lambaste him for his conditioning and assiduity.
For his career, he's averaging just 26 minutes per game, and he's only hit more than 30 twice. We watched as Howard spent the first 54 games of this season battling a bad back and shoulders, and he managed to average 35 minutes a night while missing just six games.
Those who will then point to Howard's athleticism and assert that Bynum wasn't built that way, I pray you look toward Shaquille O'Neal. All 325 pounds of him. He averaged nearly 34.7 minutes per game for his career, and he wasn't what you would consider athletically inclined or vertically explosive.
Much of a superstar's performance comes down to his devotion to the game, to his willingness to be held accountable. What do you think has made Kobe so successful these last 17 years? Those ice baths of his?
It's his appetite for winning. Five championships in and still, he fights. Harder than 99 percent of the league, I'd say.
Bynum doesn't, though. He hasn't accepted responsibility for his transgressions. He's pointed fingers at others. He's injured himself bowling when he knows very well that his professional livelihood rests upon those degenerative knees of his.
He's failed to meet our expectations even when he's been physically capable of doing so, because he's not mentally inclined to do so.
Did it have to be like this?
Bynum's high school coach, Mark Taylor, was shocked to see his prized player go pro. He knew he wasn't psychologically ready (via D'Alessandro):
This is why I get frustrated with handlers and agents and people who get to these kids when they’re young: If you have a great foundation, you do well later when problems arise," says Taylor, who had Bynum practically hand-delivered to Jim Calhoun and UConn in the spring of 2005, before the teen’s stunning decision to turn pro.
"Yes, it’s really hard to argue that point when a kid is drafted at No. 10. But I still ask: Are you truly ready? I don’t mean physically — though Andrew was not physically ready — it’s about maturity. Are you worldly enough to deal with being a professional? With setbacks? With injuries?"
Bynum wasn't, and still isn't, inwardly ready to cope with the rigors of stardom or playing at the NBA level in general.
But that's not anyone's fault other than Bynum's. He would have certainly benefitted from some collegiate experience, but who's to say Jim Calhoun would have done him any good?
Coaches are only as effective as their players allow them to be. Bynum hasn't let anyone in.
Remember, it's not as if Bynum has been thrown to the wolves. He's spent time alongside some of the best minds in basketball. Phil Jackson, Abdul-Jabbar, even Bryant—they're all more than serviceable mentors.
Nothing they or anyone else has done has resonated with Bynum, though. Not to the point where we've seen an active adjustment in his attitude or change in his perpetually enervated work ethic.
There's a reason(s) the Lakers traded him, just like there's a reason(s) the Sixers re-signing him isn't a mere formality. Not because he's incompetent or necessarily because his knees are made of Jello. Skills can be taught and honed, and bodily repairs, however often, can be made.
Will Andrew Bynum ever be a superstar?
But the Lakers couldn't, the Sixers won't and no other team will be able to re-create his psyche, to instill a sense of appreciation.
"It would just be nice if he came by now that he’s so close," Jerry Smith, the athletic director at Bynum's high school alma mater said (via Mitchell). "It would be great for our kids to see him. But I’m not holding my breath."
Nor should he. And neither should we.
Bynum's knee can be reconstructed and his tactics remodeled, but what currently stands between Bynum and genuine stardom—more than his health—is a lack of heart. That can't be fixed.
After all, you can't mend something that's fated to be broken forever.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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