Hoping to resume their run of superstar centers, the Los Angeles Lakers gambled last week on a soft-spoken 7-foot, 270-pound honors student from St. Joseph's High in Metuchen, N.J. The moment NBA commissioner David Stern called his name and he donned a purple-and-gold cap on his way to The Theater at Madison Square Garden stage, Andrew Bynum took his place at the back of an impressive line that started with George Mikan and includes Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal. While the choice seemed to be a reach, most observers did not know that Bynum had spent the two months before the June 28 draft running the Jersey Shore beaches in boots trying to shed weight, or that Los Angeles had used a variety of head fakes to ensure that no other team would nab him before it selected at No. 10.
At 17 years, eight months and two days, Bynum is the youngest draft pick in NBA history--a record he won't soon relinquish with an age minimum of 19 going into effect next season as part of the NBA's new, six-year collective bargaining agreement. (He's so proud of the distinction that he has chosen Rick Fox's old number, 17.) By risking a lottery choice on such a raw prospect, the Lakers admitted the obvious: As much as they believe in Kobe Bryant as their franchise player, they need a center who can play at Shaq's level. All of their 14 championships came with a Hall of Fame--caliber pivot.
How soon will Bynum help the franchise overtake the Celtics' record of 16 titles? "The first year is going to be incredibly hard," says Bynum, "because I can't say I've played more than 25 games in any season my whole career. All I want to do is put in some hard work and live up to those great centers who came before me." The Lakers are also soft-pedaling Bynum's rate of progress, suggesting that he might not be ready in three years--after coach Phil Jackson's $30 million contract has expired. "We didn't tell Phil he's going to be ready to play in his third year," says G.M. Mitch Kupchak.
But such talk masks the team's enthusiasm for Bynum. Director of scouting Bill Bertka, who as an assistant coach worked with Lakers centers from Chamberlain to O'Neal, put Bynum through his paces after his introductory press conference in L.A. last Thursday. "I asked him to do a spin move, which is something Kareem put in his arsenal in later life, and he was able to execute it," Bertka says. "I see a young player who has a chance to have a very extensive menu of offensive moves. His challenge is going to be to work on rebounds and defense and to show his competitive spirit when push comes to shove."
The Lakers identified Bynum as their priority after a June 15 private workout, during which he showed soft hands, a 30-inch standing vertical leap and a 7'6" wingspan. Kupchak then engaged in Auerbachian subterfuge, confiding to agents and teams that he had doubts about Bynum's right knee, which had been operated on six years ago. ( Bynum says the surgery was a precaution "because I was growing too fast.") Though Bynum had wowed the Portland Trail Blazers in a workout before he visited L.A., they took high school guard Martell Webster with the No. 6 choice. The Toronto Raptors (No. 7) and the Golden State Warriors (No. 9) both passed on Bynum in part because they didn't know enough about him, while New York Knicks president Isiah Thomas says he would have taken Bynum eighth had Arizona's 6'11" Channing Frye not been available.
Since his visit, Bynum had his eyes on L.A. His adviser and AAU coach for the last five years, Larry Marshall, canceled workouts with other teams to try to ensure that Bynum would be available at No. 10. The hard part for Bynum was that Marshall made the decision shortly after they arrived in Oakland to meet with the Warriors. "I didn't think it would be right," says Bynum of his decision to pull out of that workout. "But [executive vice president] Chris Mullin was nice about it."
Most American big men grow up (and up and up) with dreams of becoming perimeter scorers a la Kevin Garnett. Bynum prefers to play with his back to the basket, and he has spent the last year trying to re-create Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook. After Bynum excelled in a couple of high school all-star games ( McDonald's, Jordan's), Marshall convinced him that he would have to put in a lot more work if he hoped to be a lottery pick. Bynum took notice. He would rise before 7 a.m. daily and run the beach in Lawrence Harbor before concluding his two-hour workout on a nearby outdoor concrete court; over three months he dropped 28 pounds. He graduated from St. Joseph's with a 3.4 grade point average but decided a week before the draft to pass on a scholarship to UConn, though he vows he'll eventually go to college. "I might go for my master's," says Bynum. "Running my own company is definitely something I want to do someday."
Like many young people who go to Hollywood hoping to make it big, Bynum has endured hardships. His parents divorced when he was a year old, and he and his older brother have lived with their mother, Janet McCoy, a medical secretary. (Andrew's father is Ernest Bynum, who was a 6'111/2" shot blocker for Long Island University.) After failing to make the varsity at two high schools, Andrew transferred to St. Joseph's, where he resumed playing midway through his junior year. "I won't lie. When I first met Andrew, he wasn't much," St. Joe's teammate Sean Baptiste told L.A.'s Daily News after attending a draft-night party for Bynum in New Jersey. "But he's unbelievable now."
A bruised kneecap (since healed) that was originally misdiagnosed as a torn ACL limited Bynum to 16 games as a senior. He averaged 22 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots last season, but his coaches were disappointed with his effort. "He had his own agenda, and it certainly didn't help the overall team chemistry," says St. Joseph's assistant coach Wendell Alexis, a former Syracuse forward. "Andrew played to the level of his competition, but he won't have that option in the NBA. He's going to constantly remind the Lakers that he's 18."
The Lakers don't seem too concerned about Bynum's age or agenda. They believe there's a chance he'll someday play as if he were 34-- Shaq's old number. For that to happen, Jackson and Bryant will have to smooth the teen's transition. Both would be wise to do so. O'Neal left some huge shoes to fill, and for now, Bynum's size 18s are the best bet L.A. has.