EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — For all their success and accomplishments, the Los Angeles Lakers have never had an NBA Rookie of the Year.
Julius Randle isn't a bad bet to be the first.
The Lakers drafted Randle on Thursday with the seventh overall pick—their highest draft selection in 32 years. With the rest of their roster in flux as the club sets aside long-term free-agent investments for a year from now, Randle is in for a massive opportunity right away—quite possibly as the No. 2 option next to Kobe Bryant, his childhood idol.
"I was really happy to be there at seven, because I knew it was a perfect fit for me," Randle said.
Randle's arrival is the result of a combination of traditional scouting—Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said his scouts "watched him play as closely as anybody" as Kentucky reached the NCAA title game—and an overwhelming in-person impression.
Randle worked out June 17 in the Lakers' practice gym and tore it up.
Not only did he show shooting range all the way out to three-point distance, Randle also switched on his motor when Lakers player development coach Mark Madsen started playing against him in what had been purported to be an individual workout.
"It wasn't a typical solo workout," Kupchak said.
As such, Kupchak on Thursday night cited Randle's "effort" as his primary attraction. For his part, Randle views himself as the best rebounder in the draft, and he is capable of being a physical NBA power forward right now. As far as trade possibilities with Randle go, Kupchak said: "We expect to have him in training camp."
The Lakers also got value in one sense: Randle was Rivals.com's No. 2 high school recruit a year ago behind only Andrew Wiggins, who wound up the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Kupchak said flat-out that the Lakers don't believe complications in the healing of a broken bone two years ago in Randle's right foot mandate additional surgery at this time.
"If he was available, he was the one we wanted to take," Kupchak said.
Randle is 6'9" in shoes and has more bounce than one might think from casually watching his post-up, lefty-flip-shot interior game at Kentucky. Indeed, Randle's 35.5" vertical at the NBA Draft Combine was the same as what Blake Griffin posted there.
Randle's deficiencies on defense and as a passer might be revealed over the course of his rookie season as the Lakers struggle to win games, but they shouldn't impair his ability to put up numbers that challenge Wiggins in Cleveland and Jabari Parker in Milwaukee for Rookie of the Year honors.
Bryant will undoubtedly operate often in the low post, but it's not totally inconceivable for Randle to own the Lakers' paint and post comparable averages to what he did as a freshman for a talent-rich Kentucky squad: 15.0 points, 10.4 rebounds. As a high school senior, Randle averaged 32.5 points and 22.5 rebounds; he won state titles at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, three of his four years in high school.
Lofty NBA projections as a rookie only apply to Randle assuming he is physically capable of playing. Kupchak confirmed the foot issue was "something we considered" and could require a future procedure. But Kupchak's conclusion about Randle was that "his talent was such that even if he did have to miss a period of time," it wouldn't affect his career long term and was worth the investment.
When Randle worked out for the Lakers, he said: "I met with the best foot doctor in the country, and he said he wouldn't do anything with my foot." On Thursday night, he said he feels fine and plans to play in the NBA Summer League next month; Kupchak said there are no plans for any "pre-emptive surgery" on the foot.
"I couldn't ask for a better situation," Randle said.
Said Kupchak: "Bottom line is he plays and competes at a very, very high level."
Randle dispelled the idea that he lacked the upside of other top prospects in this draft with how smooth his jumper was in his Lakers workout. Near the end of that session, team vice president Jim Buss approached Randle to say hello personally. But the Lakers, who never considered his foot issue nearly as worrisome as Joel Embiid's foot fracture, feared he wouldn't last until the seventh pick.
Now he's on board, with the roster around Bryant and him an unknown going into free agency.
It's a ready joke around the NBA that Bryant doesn't want to share with anyone. But even if he has a huge bounce-back season from his injuries, Bryant doesn't want to be overloaded at age 36. And while the possibility that Randle becomes the Lakers' first Rookie of the Year since Elgin Baylor in 1959 might be a surprise to many, it is a distinct possibility.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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