Why Julius Randle Is Poised to Thrive with Los Angeles Lakers

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 4, 2014

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For most NBA rookies, joining a 27-win team means entering a pressure-free environment where expectations are low and patience is plentiful.

That isn't the case for former Kentucky star Julius Randle, whom the Los Angeles Lakers nabbed with the seventh overall pick—their highest selection in 32 years—in last month's draft.

Despite stumbling to the second-lowest winning percentage in franchise history this past season, the Lakers don't plan on being down long. They expect greatness, both from themselves and from their physical 19-year-old forward.

Luckily for the Lakers, Randle's bar is just as high as theirs:

Competitors cut from this cloth don't run from the spotlight, they embrace it. If the Dallas native couldn't handle the heat, he never would have jumped on the NBA assembly line John Calipari operates in Kentucky.

Flanked by blue-chip prospects left and right, Randle didn't have time to find his footing. He either had to perform or give way to the next McDonald's All-American that would.

When he kicked off his collegiate career with a 23-point, 15-rebound performance, it was clear he'd never have to worry about the latter. He started all 40 games for the national runner-up Wildcats, pacing the team in points (15.0) and rebounds (10.4).

He's equipped to contribute now, and the short-handed Lakers will welcome his production. Playing time will come his way early and often, which is a testament to his game, not an assessment of the Lakers' current structure.

"He's going to get minutes, not only because we need players but also because he's going to earn them," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said, via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "That's what he did at Kentucky."

Randle plays with a high motor that combines with his 6'9", 250-pound frame to form a powerful force. He's relentless on the glass, crafty in the low post and quick off the elbow.

"With an NBA-ready body built for contact, Randle should be able to step in and make a difference in the paint from day one," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote. "There's no reason why his low-post game and rebounding ability won't translate right away."

Injuries, of course, could derail his start, and there was a concern that an old foot problem could force him back into the operating room. However, the Lakers sent him to a foot specialist, who deemed it was not necessary for him to go under the knife.

With that issue apparently out of the way, Randle looks ready to make a major impact at this level. Between his skill set and his intensity, he's built to survive in any NBA setting.

There's something special about L.A., though. Something that adds to the belief that it's the perfect market in which he can thrive.

Or someone, rather.

Feb 16, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant speaks during a press conference before the 2014 NBA All-Star Game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As with most things in Lakerland, Randle's potential for success will be heavily influenced by longtime franchise face Kobe Bryant. That might be daunting news to some rookies, but it's music to Randle's ears.

"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," Randle said, via Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.

Notice the second part of that quote. Yes, Randle idolized Bryant as a child, but he's not drooling the way one might expect from someone about to meet his childhood hero.

Randle sees Bryant not as this mythical figure but as an asset in his development. He wants to pick up the tricks of the trade from Bryant, and as Calipari noted, his former player could not have found a better guide for his NBA journey:

Bryant isn't the easiest teacher, but this isn't the easiest profession. It's one that requires hard work, dedication and an unwavering commitment to the craft.

Tell that to Randle, and the rookie might ask when is the soonest he can start.

"[Kobe] may get tired of me because I'm going to be bugging him trying to learn stuff from him," he told reporters.

Now, Bryant might not seem like the type who would want to have a youngster constantly in his ear. After all, his reputation doesn't paint him as the leader of the rookie welcoming committee.

However, he does not turn away guys who are willing to work. By all accounts, Randle is one of those guys. Perhaps that's why Bryant hit Twitter on draft night to welcome his new teammate to the fold:

Bryant's methods aren't for everyone. He sets impossibly high standards because his track record—16 NBA All-Star Game selections, five championships, two Finals MVP awards—says they aren't actually impossible to meet.

He expects the best from his teammates because he demands the same from himself. He's also learned over time which buttons he can get away with pressing, a process described by former ESPN.com writer Brian Kamenetzky in 2012:

Over the course of now 17 seasons in L.A., the demands on Kobe as a leader have changed. Earlier in his career, Bryant's role wasn't as expansive. He didn't so much lead (not in the way we traditionally think of the word, at least) as get out front in a very competitive environment and drag guys with him through will, stubbornness, and on-floor talent. In time, though, as more has been required Bryant has adjusted. He's softened the edges, grown less insular, and learned you can't be that guy all the time and expect people to follow. 

There is greater depth to his leadership, and never does he demand levels of hard work he's himself unwilling to meet. 

It's tough to imagine Bryant pushing Randle too hard. The rookie lights his own fuse, so Bryant will not need to provide his flame.

Still, Randle will benefit from being around a competitor like Bryant. Not only can he pass along priceless veteran wisdom, he can also be the encouraging voice in Randle's ear, helping him fight through a tough workout or get out for that last round of shooting practice.

Even self-starters need a lift every now and then.

Bryant will provide one whenever needed, and the Lakers will give Randle every opportunity for success. Outside of the (likely future) free-agent market, they have no other paths to building pieces for tomorrow. Considering Randle's top two teammates (Bryant and Steve Nash) are a combined 75 years old, tomorrow will be coming quickly.

This franchise is invested heavily in Randle's development, even by top-10-pick standards. The Lakers are already out their 2015 first-round selection, provided it falls outside of the top five, so maximizing Randle's potential is paramount to the team's present and future.

The good news is that he feeds off that pressure. He wants a stage as big as this. He's embraced this challenge before it's even actually started.

Randle might have landed with a lottery team, but it's one that doesn't plan on being there for long. The burly big man will do what he can to lead this franchise back to relevance, and the Lakers have him primed for a strong start out of the gate.


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