Andrew Bynum Benefited from Kobe Bryant's MentoringFor several years, many media members tried to manufacture some kind of alleged conflict between Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. While there is no doubt that Bryant became exasperated at times by Bynum's immaturity and inconsistent effort, Bryant clearly was a much better mentor to Bynum than Shaquille O'Neal was to Bryant when O'Neal was the top player in the league and Bryant was a young, emerging star. Early in the 2007-08 season--the season which concluded with the first of the Lakers' three straight NBA Finals appearances in the post-O'Neal era--I asked Bryant about his approach toward mentoring Bynum:
As the other reporters drifted away to file their stories, I asked Bryant this follow-up: "At one point, you were in Andrew's position on the team--you were the young guy out of high school on a veteran team and now this is almost a role reversal. What did you learn from your experience of being the young player on a veteran team that helps you know what to say, when to say it and how to say it to Andrew? It's not just giving the right information; how you present it to him affects how open he will be, as a young person, to receiving it." Bryant answered, "I understand how to communicate to him a little bit more because I was in that position and a lot of times I felt like people really talked down to me, you know what I mean? 'This kid this' and 'this kid that,' that sort of thing, and it just rubbed me the wrong way. So, from my experience of going through that I understand now that I don't want to put him in that position. I want him to feel like he can come in and contribute, that he is valued on this ball club and that all I am trying to do is help him out to be the best that he can be."
I then asked Bryant, "Do you give him advice about how to relate to other players, from your own experience as a young player that maybe you did things, not intentionally, that rubbed veterans the wrong way in some sense?"
Bryant replied, "It's funny, because when I came into the league the age range was completely different. If I came into the league nowadays out of high school I never would have had that problem (because there would be plenty of other young players to interact with). People don't understand that's how young kids behave. This team is different (than the Lakers team that Kobe first joined). We have a lot of young guys here and also I'm here to help him out a lot. We bring him into the group; if we go out to dinner or whatever we do, we include him in it and that is part of it."
Next, I asked, "Do you feel like you weren't included as much when you were a young player? Was that partially because the age difference was much greater?"
Bryant answered, "It's all about age difference. Those guys were 28, 29, 30 years old, married--and I was 17, 18 years old, couldn't go anywhere. A lot of times I felt like I was a burden to a lot of guys and they didn't want to deal with that burden. I don't want Andrew to feel that way."
O'Neal never wanted a mentor/student relationship with Bryant; O'Neal always viewed Bryant as a rival and treated him as such, even though they were teammates and even though their team needed each player to perform at a high level in order to be successful. Bryant has taken a different and much healthier view about mentor/student relationships ever since he became old enough to assume the role that O'Neal failed to fill for Bryant when Bryant was young. Bryant embraced the opportunity to serve as a mentor during Andrew Bynum's seven year career with the L.A. Lakers and Bryant--through both words and deeds--set an example for Bynum about what it means not just to be a professional but to be a professional at the elite level. Bynum has not yet completely matured either as a person or as a player but Bryant indisputably played a major role in the strides that Bynum has already made.
O'Neal publicly feuded with Bryant and rarely missed an opportunity to criticize Bryant for both real and imagined shortcomings. In contrast, Bryant has privately critiqued Bynum but publicly supported him, even when Bynum fell short of reasonable performance expectations. After the Lakers' 99-84 game three loss to Denver in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Bynum candidly admitted, "I wasn't ready to play. That's really it. I just wasn't really ready." Bynum failed to score in the first half as the Lakers fell behind 55-39, so the truth of his statement is self evident but Bryant refused to publicly bash his teammate: "That's not what cost us the ballgame," Bryant said when asked about Bynum's lackadaisical effort. Bryant knew that the media would blast Bynum--and rightly so--and Bryant understood that no good would result from him adding his voice to that chorus of criticism.
Although Bynum has made significant strides, his development is clearly still a work in progress; he does not play hard on a consistent basis, he frequently says and does boneheaded things (on and off the court) and he complains about his touches even though he frequently does not battle for good low post position and even though he is far too often befuddled by double teams. Prior to game five of the Denver series, Bynum boasted that closeout games are "kind of easy" and then he proceeded to sleepwalk through most of that contest as Javale McGee--who spent most of the season "starring" in Shaquille O'Neal's "Shaqtin the Fool" segments on TNT--outplayed him at both ends of the court. The Lakers trailed by as many as 15 points before a late Bryant-fueled rally almost stole the game but Bryant--who finished with 43 points in the 102-99 loss--put things in proper perspective: "I wouldn't say the energy kicked in in the fourth quarter. I almost bailed us out, is what happened. That's something you can't rely on if you're going to win a championship."
Bryant gets it; he understands what kind of preparation it takes to perform like a champion and he understands the delicate balance between inspiring a teammate to work on his game and beating a teammate down through relentless verbal sniping that destroys camaraderie instead of creating it. Will Bynum use the lessons he learned from Bryant in L.A. to become a veteran leader for the Philadelphia 76ers and a legit number one option on a contending team? That remains to be seen but Bryant provided a nice blueprint for Bynum if Bynum is smart enough and mature enough to use it.
There is an impressive list of players--ranging from the sublime (future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (legend in his own mind Smush Parker) who played for at least two teams and had the best season of their careers while playing alongside Bryant. Bynum emerged as an All-Star last season and had the best season of his career in part because of Bryant's patient tutelage; it will be interesting to see if Bynum continues the growth process that Bryant helped to start.
Partial list of players who had career-best seasons as Kobe Bryant's teammate
Shaquille O'Neal (2000 regular season MVP)
Pau Gasol (2011 All-NBA Second Team)
Lamar Odom (2011 Sixth Man of the Year)
Sasha Vujacic (Career-high FG%, eighth in NBA in 3FG% in 2008)
Chris Mihm (Career-high RPG, FG% in 2005)
Brian Cook (Career-highs in PPG, RPG, FG% in 2006)
Chucky Atkins (Career-highs in PPG, RPG in 2005)
Slava Medvedenko (Career-highs in PPG, RPG in 2004)
Kwame Brown (Career-highs in BPG and FG%, second best PPG average in 2007)
Smush Parker (Career-highs in PPG, RPG, APG, SPG, FG% in 2006)
posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 PM