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Buying the Hype For a Healthy Bynum

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On the list of hotly discussed center commodities with health concerns of the last few years, Andrew Bynum can't rank too far behind Greg Oden.  The Lakers' youngster in the pivot has been a bigger topic than ever since his knee injury prevented him from returning for the 2008 postseason, thus leading to rampant speculation over how good the Lakers will be when he returns in the year to come.

Further, Bynum's individual stock seems to have raised a fair bit of debate as well, which was most recently revived after CBS' Tim Povtak ranked Bynum third among his projections for NBA centers for the 2008-09 season.  That choice seems to have drawn the ires of its share of observers, many of whom have claimed that Bynum has yet to prove anything at this level.

It's hard to pick a ranking for Bynum among centers because it's hard enough to decide who is and who isn't a center in this league. How the Lakers will fare with Bynum back also depends on quite a bit more than just the youngster himself as the ease or lack thereof of the transitions for Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol to small and power forward respectively will play a big role in the purple and gold's fortunes.  But as far as Andrew Bynum's value as a center is concerned, consider me an admitted believer in the hype.

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Of course, the headline betrays my guilt of at least a bit of bet-hedging in that the confidence here comes with the caveat of Bynum being healthy, or at least healthy enough to be on the floor.  Given the many setbacks he has had since the initial injury in January, that's no guarantee.

But if he is on the floor, this is a guy who is going to be good.   Really good.  We're talking about a 7-foot, 285-pounder who has had three seasons in the league and isn't yet 21 years old.  He has seen his minutes and both his per-game and per-minute production improve greatly in each season thus far.  The better he has gotten, the more his role has grown.  The more his role has grown, the better he has seemed to play.  It's an encouraging cycle.

This is a guy who can legitimately do everything in the pivot.  Though he still needs to refine his inside game and add a bit of touch further from the basket, he can create his own offense down low.  His strength and comfort in the post allow him to make powerful moves to step through defenders and finish dunks and baby lay-ins with ease.  Bynum also gets his share of putbacks off of offensive rebounds down low. For the most part, he limits his attempts to high-efficiency shots, which enabled him to put up a very effective 63.6 percent field-goal percentage last season.  It doesn't hurt to know that the Lakers were nearly two points better per 100 possessions offensively with him than without him despite acquiring one-time All-Star center and accomplished scorer Pau Gasol after Bynum went down.

The youngster is also becoming a force defensively and on the glass.  He has impressive quickness and agility for a man his size, and his timing is already excellent with regard to shot-blocking.  Bynum blocked 2.1 shots in less than 30 minutes per game last season, and he has become an impressive all-around defender, having worked to improve his positioning and rotations down low from when he first entered the league.  He should only become more dominant on this end as time goes on and he continues to grow as a player.  Similarly, the neophyte his pushed his rebounds per 36 minutes mark from 8.5 to 9.7 to 12.7 over his first three seasons, and he grabbed 10.2 per game to go with his 13.1-point scoring average last season.

This is a guy who has fine size at the center position.  He can get his own shot, clean the glass at both ends and make a big difference as an interior stopper for his team.  He hasn't done it at this level for all that long, and there are questions about his health, but if he can remain on the floor, Andrew Bynum can play.  The sky truly is the limit for this youngster.