Gregg Popovich couldn't believe how long his Spurs teams had been matching up with the Lakers' man in the middle. He remembers Andrew Bynum when he was just a 17-year-old boy.
"Really? Bynum's been seven years?" the San Antonio coach said recently when asked what's changed about planning for Bynum in his seven years in the league. "Wow. Goes by pretty quick. Man oh man. That's amazing. ... Good lord."
Bynum has had that flabbergasting effect on people all this season.
Bynum used to be the oft-injured center the Los Angeles Lakers took a chance on with the No. 10 pick in the 2005 NBA draft, coming off just the second time in the past 30 years that the team missed the playoffs.
This season he has become an All-Star for the first time and has started to fulfill the promise his 7-foot, 285-pound body suggested he'd be capable of.
Bynum is averaging 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game this season -- both career highs, with his boards-per-game numbers ranking third in the league. He's shooting 55.8 percent from the field -- fifth best in the league. He's blocking 1.9 shots per game -- sixth in the NBA.
He's done it all by staying on the floor, playing in 60 of the Lakers' 65 games thus far this season (missing one because of an ankle injury and the other four because of a suspension) after missing an average of 31 games because of injury in the previous four seasons.
"He looks like a totally different player to me, honestly," Popovich said. "He looks so much more confident. He almost has a sign on his head like, 'I've arrived.'"
Indeed he has. It's not really fair to call Bynum a late bloomer, because he is just 24 years old after all, but this season has been unlike any of the six that preceded it in Bynum's career. He's always enjoyed a portion of the limelight while playing in L.A. and contributing to two championship teams, but this season he has burst onto the scene and gets my vote for the NBA's Most Improved Player award.
He has seven 30-plus-point games this season, after just one through his first six seasons. He has 23 20-plus-point games this season, after just 32 through his first six seasons. He has 16 15-plus-rebound games this season, after just 22 through his first six seasons.
All the while, he's playing more than he ever has (35.2 minutes per game), testing the limits of his body, which already has been through three knee surgeries, causing him to have to ice his knees before tipoff just to be ready to play.
"It's consistency," said Lakers assistant coach Darvin Ham, who has worked closely with Bynum this season, using medicine ball exercises to improve his balance. "That's what makes the biggest difference, man. In my opinion, it's consistency. He's consistently given us something. He's had a couple hiccups here and there, but for the most part, s---, we need that kid to win, man."
You can't tell the story of Bynum's season with ignoring the hiccups, of course. He's had multiple ejections. He was fined by the team for numerous infractions, including blowing off a meeting with general manager Mitch Kupchak. He was benched in a game in Golden State for taking a 3-pointer outside the flow of the offense and then vowed after the game to shoot more of them, publicly testing head coach Mike Brown.
But whatever prima donna tactics he might have developed haven't hurt his production.
And plus ...
"He's capable of making 3-point shots as well," Ham said. "The sky's the limit for that kid if he continues [at] that pace."
Bynum isn't the favorite to win MIP. Orlando's Ryan Anderson, Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic, Detroit's Greg Monroe, Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova and Houston's Goran Dragic are all more traditional candidates as young players in their first four seasons who have made the leap from unknowns to solid contributors. New York's Jeremy Lin has his supporters for his rags-to-riches phenomenon, even if he played in only 25 games.
But Bynum's case makes you consider what's more impressive: going from average to good or going from good to great?
"Usually what we look for are the guys that weren't good or were average and made a jump," said ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy when asked what the qualifications for the Most Improved Player award should be. "And usually theirs was about opportunities. This league is about opportunities. You just hope that people don't downgrade somebody's chances because they were already pretty good."
Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person, who has been on the Lakers' staff since 2009-10, has seen Bynum's progress firsthand. He's seen him go from the third option on offense behind Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to being the team's solid No. 2 and facing the defensive attention that comes from that.
Bynum hasn't just made strides from Season 6 of his career to Season 7; within the 2011-12 season, he's only gotten better month by month from December until April.
"This year, just about a week into the season, teams knew they had to deal with him on a nightly basis," Person said. "They started coming in droves. ... I think at the time he was reluctant to pass out of double-teams early because he was having such great success. But, what he found out, is that if he is a willing passer and an early willing passer and our teammates make them pay on the backside, he'll find himself being mentioned with the great centers of the past being able to carry a team because they have to deal with him every night with two entry people, not just with single coverage. ...
"I think you can see a difference in that team now than you saw two-three months ago."
And you can see a clear difference in Bynum, once perennial trade bait for the Lakers, now the most improved player in the league and a cornerstone for the franchise moving forward.
"When he's engaged, there's no better big man in the league in my opinion," Ham said. "Hands down."
Justin Page of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.