A powerhouse prospect capable of bullying his way through any defense that tried to stand between him and the basket, Julius Randle—the 6’9”, 250 lb. Lamar Odom-Zach Randolph hybrid—was not supposed to be available when the Los Angeles Lakers were on the clock in the 2014 NBA draft.
Popularly projected to be a top-three or top-five pick during the selection process, a pre-draft report from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports cited the potential need for a corrective procedure on Randle’s right foot, one that Randle would ultimately wind up having. Despite rampant denials from his camp and from Randle himself, the once surefire top pick had suddenly become somewhat of a question mark with his ultimate landing spot difficult to gauge.
On draft day, just one pick before the Lakers were up and so many anticipating the moment Marcus Smart was about to become the team’s next franchise building block, the bulldog of a point guard had his named called No. 6 overall by the enemy Boston Celtics. Smart was off the board, and there sat Randle waiting, hoping to call Kobe Bryant—his favorite player—a new teammate.
The Lakers made him the pick, the Kentucky product finally flashed his trademark smile and Julius Randle’s rebound began.
Without a need for immediate surgery and cleared to play from the onset, Randle’s first taste of professional basketball came in the Las Vegas summer league. Despite Randle’s best attempts to continue his bully-ball style of play, the (then) teenager quickly learned about the NBA being a grown man’s game. Forcing shots, looking out of rhythm and struggling to “prove ‘em wrong,” it was clear that Randle’s acclimation to the league would be an ongoing process.
On opening night, when Randle was first introduced to a crowd that was salivating for his arrival, Staples Center cheered for the young man like he was wearing a Magic Johnson throwback jersey. Coming off of a two-year stretch that included Dwight Howard’s unfortunate Los Angeles cameo and the beginning of the end to Steve Nash’s career, Lakers fans were desperate to see a tangible sign of progress that pointed toward a brighter future. In Randle, a 19-year-old kid and the Lakers’ first top-10 pick since Andrew Bynum in 2005, there was finally reason to hope and believe that the post-Bryant era would include at least one future star.
Then, the unthinkable happened: Just 13 minutes into his rookie season and first ever regular season NBA game, Randle’s inaugural campaign was over. Immediately diagnosed with a fractured right tibia and put in an air cast on the court before being wheeled away on a stretcher, Randle had surgery the next day and was forced to spend the remainder of the season in the weight room and on the sidelines, never receiving a second chance to put on the jersey he had waited so long to wear proudly.
For most in Randle’s situation, the injury probably would have resulted in a broken heart, a crushed dream and general frustration about the proper process yielding extremely undesirable results. For Randle, after the initial shock and sadness wore off, it simply pushed him like nothing ever had prior. Determined to crash the glass, assert his will and conquer the opposition, Randle, who knew quitting or failure was not an option under Bryant’s tutelage, was already preparing for a successful rebound.
“Even though I didn’t get to play, it was still a huge learning process,” Randle told reporters.
Working tirelessly on what he could, meeting different milestones in the process and discovering an entirely new lens of perspective in which to see the game through, Randle became a true student of basketball.
“I want to learn,” he told Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding. “I want to be as prepared as I can next year.” Randle was already preparing to box out his next opponent.
Asked to write scouting reports about the Lakers’ opposition and dissect the gameplan in the process, Los Angeles was establishing an environment for Randle to succeed while he remained off the floor.
“I’ve watched a lot of basketball, but never this much NBA basketball. You see the pace of play, the flow of the game. Put yourself in positions that you can be in the game. It helps you mentally be prepared to know what to do when you are out there.”
Randle, when so many wondered and worried about his motivation, desire and general emotion after he had his dream temporarily snatched away so abruptly, had never been more motivated to find success.
“I see the opportunity. It’s reassured me of my ability and the things I know I can do.”
He reshaped his diet, dedicated himself to being a professional off of the floor and never lost the fire that still burns brightly in his belly.
After waiting for so long, Randle finally made his return in Las Vegas this summer. Again looking like a bull in a china shop, both the rust and excitement to simply be able to play were evident whenever Randle was on the floor. But this was a different Julius Randle: leaner, meaner, stronger and more prepared than he ever had been.
He got through training camp without issue, and the preseason breezed by without so much as a cause for concern. A healthy Randle, with the strength of a stubborn ox, was flashing the ballhandling skills and, at times, the athleticism of a guard. With nobody like him in the league currently and no clear prototype for what kind of star Randle could ultimately become, this was the player that the Lakers—and their fans—had been waiting so long to see.
Executing the verbal version of Sam Cassell’s famous dance while going up against legendary trash-talker Kevin Garnett in the Lakers’ 2015-16 season opener, the big man’s indisputable paint presence is just the next step in Julius Randle’s rebound.