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Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Going from good to great

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Andrew Bynum has been carrying it around since Christmas. On the road, out to dinner, inside the training room before games, or any other time he might have a spare minute.

It repulses him, but he can't put it down.

It disgusts him, but he keeps reading.

It's a red-and-blue book called "The 48 Laws of Power,'' whose product description on Amazon.com is rather Machiavellian: "Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this piercing work distills three thousand years of the history of power.''

His brother, not Lakers coach Phil Jackson, gave it to him recently and Bynum hasn't been able to put it down.

He says he's just curious. Curious in a voyeuristic way. But when one of the best young centers in the NBA is this into a book, there's definitely a deeper reason.

"It's cool to know a little bit about the laws and understand where this guy [author Robert Greene] is coming from. But this is like take-over-the-world-stuff,'' Bynum said.

"It's good to read it and try and understand it, but some of the stuff in here is like totally against my character. Like 'Get others to do work for you but take the credit' or 'Learn to keep people dependent on you.' I just feel like people should be more decent and tell the truth.''

Ethically and morally, of course he's right.

But things are always a bit grayer on the basketball court, which is exactly why I suspect Bynum has become so interested in the book.

As quickly and impressively as he's developed in his five seasons with the Lakers, Bynum still has a long way to go. And that last bit, from good to great and then from great to superstar, is always the hardest leg of the journey.

There are few books that cover that kind of subject and even fewer rules. Actually, the best person Bynum can consult is actually across the Lakers' locker room wearing No. 24.

The only thing that's very clear-cut is that Bynum is still wrestling pretty hard with the issue.

Though he has played better in the Lakers' past two games, averaging 17.5 points a game but still only 4.5 rebounds, Bynum's lethargic December was a huge disappointment to himself and the organization.

In the first 11 games of this season, Bynum looked like an All Star. He was dominating and consistent, aggressive and angry. A presence at both ends of the court. But in the 22 games since, he's looked like the 22-year-old project he still is. Passive, frustrated and confused by how it could unravel so quickly.

It's no coincidence that his declining production corresponded to the return of the Lakers' All-Star power forward, Pau Gasol, from a hamstring injury. Gasol injured his other hamstring in Sunday night's win over the Mavericks and will be re-evaluated Monday morning.

In the nine games he played earlier in the season without Gasol, Bynum averaged 20.3 points and 11.8 rebounds. He had eight double-doubles. Since Gasol returned on Nov. 19, Bynum has had none. In fact, in four of those 22 games he had single-singles.

He's taking 4.96 fewer shots a game, getting into foul trouble more often (he's drawn four or more fouls 10 times since Gasol's return after doing so just twice in nine games without Gasol) and generally looking lost and frustrated on the court.

At first, Jackson attributed Bynum's struggles to a lingering upper respiratory infection that exacerbated his asthma and affected his endurance on the court. Bynum also conceded last week that he's been having some discomfort in his right knee and is getting treatment for it. But its clear there's more happening than that.

A player doesn't go from sure All-Star to mystery man in a month's time without a confluence of confounding events.

There is no shortage of theories in the Lakers' locker room, but all seem to touch on three key themes: effort, aggression and consistency

"What do I think?'' Gasol said. "I'm not sure what this stretch he's going through is. He's a very good player, he helps us a lot when he's out there. He just needs to continue to work hard and continue to want to be a better player. That's the main thing.''

Assistant coach Frank Hamblen went a bit further, "His biggest thing is he's got to learn to play hard in this league. Running hard, just playing hard and trying to increase his endurance. We'd like to see him still be the first big guy down the court.''

Consistency and effort are two criticisms often lobbed at young players.

Which Bynum -- who spent last summer backpacking around Europe with friends -- undoubtedly still is.

Could it simply be that Bynum is just a young kid still learning how to deal with adversity and the changing dynamics of an NBA team?

After all, when he was excelling earlier in the season, he was clearly the Lakers' No. 1 option in the low post every game. Once Gasol returned, his role has been reduced. Veteran players like Lamar Odom learn how to adjust to such circumstances. Fifth-year players who skipped college and played just 33 games in high school are left scratching their heads and watching a lot of tape with assistant coaches to find answers.

Even Gasol said he's not sure how he would've handled a situation like this earlier in his career.

"I think my experience helps me to be the way I am right now. Probably when I was younger I would've gotten myself down too if that would've happened,'' Gasol said. "I think that comes with maturity and experience and not getting down when you're not getting the looks you want to get, especially on a team like this.''

Jackson said that Bynum's age and relative inexperience have always been a topic of conversation in coaches' meetings. To compensate, he's leaned heavily on assistant coaches like Kurt Rambis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chuck Person and his personal trainer, Sean Zarzana.

But Rambis is now coaching in Minnesota, Abdul-Jabbar's role was reduced this season after Bynum admittedly outgrew him, and Zarzana has been around for only select road games this season. The only part of Bynum's support system still around on a daily basis is Person, who works with him on the court before games and at practice.

"Kurt [Rambis] would always say, 'He's awfully young,''' Jackson said. "You have to remember that he only played like 30 games of his high school career. Some kids play 100 games in high school, so he really had a limited experience. His first year here was pretty much a wash, then he's had two injury situations go on that limited how much he could actually participate.

"But he's got a sense about him, basketballwise. The thing we keep encouraging him on is activity, you know, be an active player. If there's something that's inhibiting his activity, he has to now take that professional attitude about it. [He's] got to get back to where activity becomes a focal point because that'll turn this around. Run the court, get early baskets, get offensive rebounds, hustle your way into it and things go well.''

Bynum has always been a studious guy. He likes to read, he works hard and keeps his head down. He has a desire to play well and improve. The question is whether he can figure out how to go from good to great and then from great to superstar.

The final 0.2 of a 26.2-mile marathon.

There are few books covering that sort of thing. Except maybe, the book that's been in Bynum's locker and at his side for the past three weeks.

It might repulse him, but there's a reason he can't put it down.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.