Randle: The Rising Tide Amid Lakers' Sea of Change
Kings grow accustomed to grand views from their castles and thrones. It's only natural to be a bit spoiled by so much status and more than your share of success.
Accordingly, Lakers fans who've come to relish the intense excitement of championship contention could be excused for not understanding–or even believing–there could be beauty in the beast known as "rebuilding."
But as you find yourself admiring the ferocity with which he finishes around the basket or how deftly he switches to stymie scorers both big and small, unable to miss how Julius Randle has gotten so much better, you are feeling it. Perhaps you find yourself, even as various names draw speculation to come fill the Lakers’ summer salary-cap space, shaking your head and being drawn to the Lakers retaining Randle, no matter what.
Part of that is simply what a valuable player into which Randle has made himself. Much of it, though, is that he has made it with the help of the Lakers' organization, under the watchful eye of uneasy Lakers fans. Randle has fought through all sorts of adversity that no one but diehard team followers cared about…to the point now of establishing a secure footing in this game and becoming a consistent force in this league.
Kobe Bryant, Randle's childhood idol, supported him with detailed advice through the arduous process of physical rehab and critical area of building mental toughness. Mitch Kupchak stimulated him by asking to email him written reports on basketball strategy, which led to Randle being studious enough to start his own personal notebook of observations. Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and Luke Walton tipped the pivotal domino for this season's success by imploring Randle last spring to get into such great shape that he could reach the "best possible version" of himself.
Julius battling Karl Anthony-Towns in 2014 Summer League
Randle was the franchise's highest draft pick in 32 years. He didn't just wobble as he took his baby steps in the NBA, he suffered the misfortune of breaking his leg in his very first game and being put out for the season. Then he struggled with the team losing so much. He soul-searched as he tried to carve out his individual role.
Now he's killing it.
This is the silver lining of rebuilding, the solace you must take when the team doesn't have title aspirations yet. In lieu of championships, you'd better savor life's smaller victories.
And it can be pretty gratifying to watch as a young player goes from this…to this…to THIS!
That's what has come to pass with Randle, who happens to be the Lakers' only long-term investment from their rebuilding process.
Nary a player remains from Randle's first Lakers team three years ago–or even Randle's second Lakers team two years ago.
Stephen Curry was reminded Tuesday how rarely the Golden State Warriors used to win once upon a time, and he interjected: "Trust me, I remember," before noting he's the only one in his locker room of champions to recall that pain of not even making the playoffs.
Randle is the only evidence of the Lakers' overall struggle and the incremental progress in recent years.
"The fans have definitely seen me grow," he said, "and I want to continue to grow."
How has Randle, who began this awkward season on the bench and sometimes rarely playing, been able to rise above it all, keying the Lakers' 18 victories in the past 26 games despite injuries to Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart and the trade of Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.?
"It's been up and down, but if this was my first year or second year, it'd be really tough," Randle said. "My first year–technically my second year [after the broken leg]–was rough, man. Winning 17 games that year, that's not easy. I don't come from that culture. I love to win.
"But I think everything that happened before this year built me up and built character in me to be able to learn how to deal with everything for what has happened this year. And it was tough this year; I'm not going to say it hasn't been tough. The adversity we as a team and I personally faced this year, it was tough. But for me, everything that I've been through before has prepared me to learn how to deal with it."
So you see how the rebuilding process has worked in Randle's individual realm, too. He's saying he wouldn't be so strong now if he hadn't had to suffer such setbacks along his way.
Lakers walk off the floor during a timeout against Dallas
"These past almost four years have been a tremendous amount of growth for me," he said. "Not just as a player, more so as a person. Realizing what's important. The maturity of not sweating the small things. How to deal with adversity. All that type of stuff."
Randle acknowledged he has become more coachable, and the crux of it has been the buy-in on both sides of his relationship with Walton–despite the frustrations early this season.
"Coach really cares about me as a person. It's easier to have a working relationship with someone if they care about you as a person," Randle said. "It's been like that since Day One, since he got the job and called me and had a conversation with me and they [with Golden State] were still in the playoffs competing for a championship. He wanted to establish that relationship from that day.
"It's been great ever since. He came to my wedding. Sent congrats on my baby. He has seen me mature and grow as a person as well these past two years. He can be tough on me, but he is obviously a loving coach who really cares about his players."
The true work to improve, however, must come from within.
The discipline to create and stick to a plan that dropped Randle's weight from 260 pounds to 243 now and took his body fat from 12-13 percent down to 6-7 percent. The improvement in finishing with his right hand, passing out of double teams and understanding the pick and roll. The acumen to measure the sweet spot on the block where he can turn baseline and make a bad-angle bank shot every time on the left side or wheel into the lane toward the hoop from the right side.
Winning 17 games that year, that's not easy. I don't come from that culture. I love to win.Julius Randle
Top it off with that fro-hawk hairdo that suggests he's a baseball closer coming in bigger and better to bully anyone in his relentless path, and it has all come together: Randle is shooting 70 percent inside the restricted-area arc where he refuses to be denied.
But the 6-foot-9 Randle blossoming into one of probably 10 or so NBA players the most capable of switching to guard anyone is rooted in an attitude adjustment. Randle dropped what he called the "bad habits" of an inexperienced player who doesn't realize defense wins games.
"This year I really started to take a pride in my team playing well defensively," he said. "And then individually taking a challenge on being able to stop guys or get big stops down the stretch. I really have taken a pride in that. I hate for teams to score or for somebody to score on me."
Long before Bryant compared Randle to Lamar Odom when all others were saying Zach Randolph…long before Randle's resolve was on full display with those forceful, borderline illegal screens he set in Bryant's 60-point farewell game…Bryant often used to say his connection with the local fans was so strong "because they've watched me grow up."
Such is the satisfaction of knowing someone before he makes it big, seeing him as a developing person piecing life together rather than just revering someone as some renowned celebrity.
The flip side of rookies Ball and Kyle Kuzma poking fun at everything about each other on social media is the family life you'll see from Randle's accounts. He has quickly graduated from those stock stories after draft night about what parents think of their children's futures…to already having a wife and child as the center of his own world.
Kyden just turned 1 in December, but he has already been on plenty of NBA road trips.
"Absolutely. I ain't got no choice," Randle said, smiling. "I can't go these 10-day road trips. If we're in a city for three days, he's coming, for sure. He's got to come. I'd go crazy.
Julius, Kendra, and Kyden take in a South Bay Lakers game
"For me, there's no more rewarding feeling than waking up every morning and hearing that laugh and giggle and seeing that smile and him wanting to play. That makes my day. And everything else becomes minor. It's just the maturity of me as a person. You realize what's really important in life, and that's the happiness of my family."
Randle is self-aware enough to appreciate how motivated he is to be a present father after he was raised only by his mother.
"That's a big factor in it," he said. "It was just my mom, my sister and me. And from a young age, my mom always said I was like the man of the house. I really became the man of the house. And I really took that responsibility very seriously: being the man of the house, the protector.
"When I realized I was having a baby boy, I wanted him to know that I'm there in his life: ‘Dad loves him. Dad's always going to support him and be there for him.' I don't want him to have to worry about anything."
Randle's relationship with his college sweetheart, Kendra, has also evolved.
"Life just happens how it happens, and you realize what you want and realize there's really no point in waiting," he said. "So I really wanted to get married and make that commitment and be that man in her life to make that commitment to her. And for me, I always wanted a lot of kids; I always wanted to have a family."
For me, there's no more rewarding feeling than waking up every morning and hearing that laugh and giggle and seeing that smile and him wanting to play.Julius Randle
So much has changed in Randle's personal and professional life since he fell to the Lakers at No. 7 in the 2014 draft amid questions about a previously broken foot, it's understandable he feels more deeply connected to the area than most young players might.
"This is the organization that drafted me, regardless, and gave me my opportunity and my shot," Randle said. "And this is somewhere, from coming here at 19 years old and now 23, I've grown as a player and a person, and I want to continue to grow. If it's here, that would be absolutely amazing.
"Free agency's coming up, and obviously there will be decisions to make. But for me, I want to finish out the season strong and not worry about that. When the time comes, I'll worry about that, but it has been an amazing place for me. L.A. has been amazing to me, so I have a lot of love for it."
For their part along this route, Lakers fans have been doing a lot of honoring Kobe. They've been cheering for transient guys briefly wearing the purple and gold before Ingram and Ball finally arrived as consecutive No. 2 overall picks. Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss has appropriately noted how impossible it is actually to cheer on "cap space."
In Randle, though, the Lakers have had a living, breathing, growing young man.
And all his success now should be celebrated, as it sure hasn't come easy for him or the organization.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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