In Julius Randle, Lakers Find Promising Bridge to Kobe's Present, Lakers' Future

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In Julius Randle, Lakers Find Promising Bridge to Kobe's Present, Lakers' Future
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Like most of the prospects to come through the Lakers' practice facility for predraft workouts, Julius Randle was extremely happy to be there.

He even got into the Lakers' gym the night before his workout to get some shots up and walk—or float—across the Lakers logo at center court.

Randle called it "a humbling experience." He said seeing the purple and gold on the court "gave me chills."

He even described himself as "the biggest Laker fan" before adding…

"Probably more of a Kobe fan."

And therein lies a unique challenge ahead of the Lakers: maintaining the mighty brand of the franchise when so many from the younger generation identify the Lakers overwhelmingly with Kobe Bryant.

After the upcoming two years on his contract, Bryant will have carried the Lakers' torch for two full decades. It's not difficult math to determine that by then everyone younger than the drinking age in this country will have never known the Lakers without Kobe.

Randle is 19, meaning he is at least slightly ahead in years of life compared to Bryant's 18 years as a Laker.

Randle was the Lakers' choice Thursday night with the seventh pick in the NBA draft, and with that trust comes more than the usual amount of pressure. Not only must Randle contribute immediately as a polished power forward for what figures to be a thin roster next season, he must lead the shift toward the Lakers' post-Kobe life.

Dwight Howard didn't want to follow that act, and it remains to be seen which elite free agent, probably in 2015, is willing to embrace that challenge: join Bryant and then basically replace him.

Although Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak acknowledged the Lakers' preparedness to offer a max contract next month to a free agent, don't mistake that for any expectation that the Lakers see some incoming player besides Randle right now possibly being Bryant's heir apparent.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant's two championships impressed many of the players the Lakers will turn to for their future.

Said Kupchak: "In terms of the best of the best, there is only a couple, three [in this free-agent class]. … Maybe it's not as large as it might be next year or the year after."

For now, no one is actually asking Randle to do all that—but make no mistake: It is the Lakers' dream scenario. It is, when you look back on it, precisely what they had planned for Andrew Bynum, their last high draft pick whom they developed into an All-Star, before Bynum was traded for Howard.

Randle is coming to the Lakers with a far different mindset than Howard, for sure.

"It's going to be amazing," Randle said. "I grew up a huge fan of Kobe—he was always my idol, my favorite player growing up—and now I have a chance to pick his brain and learn a lot from him. I couldn't ask for a better situation."

Randle tweeted out a photo of him as a kid wearing a Lakers jersey…except he didn't have the "Lakers" name on his front. Little Julius was wearing the jersey backward, with that old No. 8 and "BRYANT" across his chest.

Randle is a Bryant backer to the point that he went to a Lakers game in Dallas while in middle school, found his way courtside and yelled and yelled until an apparently annoyed Bryant finally gave in and slapped Randle's hand.

"I said I wasn't washing my hand for a year," Randle recalled, smiling.

Even Bryant's critics by now acknowledge he can lead by example when it comes to dedication to his craft.

But it's sweet for someone coming to town to want so unabashedly to nuzzle under sharp-beaked Bryant's wing, which has actually nurtured more players than the mainstream NBA fan might know: Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown, Jodie Meeks and Nick Young.

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images
Julius Randle felt a connection with the Lakers in his workout that stretched back to his days as a fan of the team when he was in middle school.

Randle isn't alone in his view of Bryant. Many of his fellow draft prospects who were developing their own ideas and learning to drive their own cars at the same time Bryant was winning his last two NBA championships had been relishing the idea of being his teammate. 

Elfrid Payton came to work out for the Lakers a second time and was asked about the possibility he might get to play with Bryant. An unsteady look came across Payton's eyes, and he said with a stammer: "I don't want to get my hopes up."

Jordan Clarkson, a second-round pick the Lakers acquired Thursday night, was named after Michael Jordan and calls LeBron James his favorite player. On Thursday night, Clarkson acknowledged the Lakers' championship history but said: "I was a fan of Kobe and watched him a lot, growing up."

The NBA has long been a stars' league, but this goes beyond that.

Take, for instance, a measure of the Lakers' 3.8 million Twitter followers, which far exceeds the Knicks' 955,000 or the Clippers' 576,000.

Compare the Lakers' 3.8 million to Bryant's 5.2 million, though, and it's a whole different ballgame.

It's even more logical to focus on Bryant, even if he missed most of last season, when the Lakers don't have a head coach and revered owner Jerry Buss is gone.

Kentucky's John Calipari, Randle's college coach, tweeted Thursday that he called Randle into his office two weeks ago to make clear there could be no better situation for Randle than dropping to No. 7 and going to the Lakers.

Why?


Randle declined the opportunity to work out a second time for the Boston Celtics on the eve of the draft. It's safe to assume his hope of slipping to the Lakers, picking one spot behind the Celtics, was part of his thought process. Guard Marcus Smart, who worked out twice for the Celtics, wound up Boston's choice—much to the Lakers' relief.

"I was really happy to be there at seven," Randle said, "because I knew it was a perfect fit for me."

Bryant earned his ticket to L.A. with his legendary predraft workout against Michael Cooper in front of Jerry West. Randle said he was so strangely comfortable in the Lakers' practice gym that it felt "like home" to him for his own deal-sealing workout that ended with Jim Buss approaching for a handshake.

And 18 years to the day after Bryant was drafted, Randle was chosen by the Lakers.

Life with Kobe will cost the Lakers $48.5 million over the next two years. And while a lot of people don't get why the club would reward Bryant with that league-richest contract extension at this near-sunset point in his day, Kupchak repeated Thursday what he has said before: "As long as Kobe is on this team, we have to believe that we can contend for a championship." 

The Lakers are so loyal to Bryant because they want to remain that close to him, similar to how they've remained close to so many of their alumni who have worked or still work for them.

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant's current deal with the Lakers has been criticized by many, but GM Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers say the deal keeps the team's title window open.

They don't want there to be separate camps of Kobe fans and Lakers fans.

The vision for the franchise's future is not a life after Kobe. It is a life that Kobe helps build and sustain.

As harsh as Howard's departure was for the Lakers in terms of basketball assets, it crystallized something for this franchise: This is a business, but it simply didn't feel good to put the next generation in the hands of someone who lacks respect for all Bryant has done.

Howard refusing that gift was a lesson to those offering it.

However good a player Julius Randle turns out to be, this is the way to handle the torch—with pride and reverence.

And the whole point of passing it is so that the light doesn't go out.

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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