Julius Randle Is the Secret to the Lakers’ Surprising Start

Bryan Brandom
(Photo: Getty Images)

How quickly the world forgot about Julius Randle.

After a beastly lone season at the University of Kentucky, the Los Angeles Lakers selected the power forward with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

But his career stopped before it could really get started; during his 14th minute of action in his first regular season game, Randle broke his tibia.

He returned a season later to the Byron Scott-led abortion of a Lakers team in 2015-16, in which the head coach proudly acknowledged how much he did to prohibit the development of the bevy of young talent on the roster. Almost no one looked good in what Scott assured the world was an offense, but Randle especially so: He shot just 42.9 percent from the field, a horrid mark for a big man that isn't regularly flinging up threes.

While a season ago youngsters like D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and even second-rounder Larry Nance Jr. showed flashes of brilliance, or at least clear paths to important rotation minutes for good teams, despite obvious talents for rebounding and passing Randle was limited in ways that will render a big man almost moot in today's NBA: He couldn't shoot and he couldn't defend.

My, what a difference a year and a competent coach makes.

According to vetereran bench microwave Lou Williams, new head coach Luke Walton has expertly motivated the young Lakers squad.

And it's shown, particularly in the defensive games of formerly hopeless players on that end like Nick Young and Randle. While the burly, mostly ground-bound big man will never be much of a shot-blocker, he's turned his solid quickness and foot speed into a talent for keeping up with perimeter-oriented players, making him a good defensive matchup against stretch 4s and allowing Walton to use more switch-heavy defenses that limit the effectiveness of opposing teams' pick-and-roll offenses.

He's far from an elite defensive player, but in a small sample size he's flashed the potential to become an above-average player on that end. Just in time, too, because his offense is also blossoming under Walton.

A game after dropping 20 points and 14 rebounds in an upset of the Golden State Warriors, Randle scored 18 on 6-of-9 shooting to go with four assists and one turnover. The Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns 119-108.

Oh, and he's tough. A year ago we saw him refuse to back down from Kevin Garnett. On Sunday night, he tangled with Tyson Chandler to draw double technicals. Immediately after, Randle iso'ed against Chandler, and Devin Booker cheated to help, expecting a blow-by. Instead of driving, Randle found Booker's man for an open three to ice the game.

"The fact he did what he did was such a winning play on his part," Walton said of the play. "Unselfish. It's everything we want. It's him using his brain, him being competitive, him fighting for the team."

The win improves the Lakers' record to 4-3.

"We're doing things the right way, and we're starting to see some success," Randle said. "We easily could have given up the lead, but we kept fighting. … That's just my game. I don't back down from anybody. I'm not afraid of nobody."

Whether it's thanks to Walton's offensive improvement over Scott, Randle's personal development, or both, he's been crazy efficient on offense, shooting an incredible 60.3 percent from the field to go with 2.6 assists from the power forward spot in under 28 minutes per game.

And he won't turn 22 until the end of November.


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