Julius Randle has something to prove. Fortunately for the Los Angeles Lakers, the 6’9”, 250-pound power forward drafted seventh overall in last month’s NBA draft gets to prove the critics wrong while wearing purple and gold.
Randle felt, and rightfully so, that he should have been drafted higher. After the Lakers grabbed the former Kentucky Wildcat, Randle expressed joy but also sounded a warning to the teams that passed on him, via ESPNLA.com: "I think I should've went higher for sure, but, you know, the teams that passed on me will regret it."
Talk about high expectations. Julius Randle may be 19 years old, but he already sounds like a seasoned NBA veteran with a major chip on his shoulders.
To the delight of Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, Randle slipped all the way down to the seventh spot, perhaps the result of a rumored foot injury that may not have properly healed.
He (Randle) was bypassed by two players who couldn't get their teams out of the first weekend of the tournament. He was bypassed by a chronically injured center who might not play for six months. He was bypassed by a kid guard from Australia who never played collegiately, an Oklahoma State guard who can't shoot, and an Arizona athlete who doesn't have a position.
Randle was overlooked in favor of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum and Marcus Smart. The Lakers are confident they got the player they wanted, choosing to pass on such power forwards as Indiana's Noah Vonleh to draft Randle.
Considering their dismal performance last season that saw the defenseless Lakers win just 27 games, expectations for Randle will be high. But, given that L.A. is in a rebuilding mode, those expectations must be realistic.
Expectations and pressure are nothing new for the Dallas native who just a year ago made the jump from Prestonwood Christian High School in Plano, Texas to the one-and-done college basketball factory otherwise known as the University of Kentucky.
The Wildcats are one of the elite powerhouse teams in the NCAA, where head coach John Calipari is able to recruit the best high school talent with a promise of big minutes and a path to the next level.
Randle was an ideal fit from day one, averaging 15 points on 50 percent shooting and 10.4 rebounds over 40 games in leading his team all the way to the NCAA Championship game in April.
Calipari knew he had a gem in Randle, an energetic player with an intense work ethic and high motor who could be counted on to deliver every game. In fact, Randle’s 24 double-doubles led the entire country last year and were the most ever by a UK freshman.
Randle on Kobe, per Mark Medina of L.A. Daily News:
He was my favorite player. I loved Kobe’s persona and swagger and how he played. He was someone I always looked up to at a young age. I could learn a lot from him and talk to one of the greatest, if not the greatest player of all time.”
Regardless of who the Lakers sign or don’t sign this offseason in free agency, Randle is a key piece to a franchise that expects to compete for titles every year. Much like Magic Johnson in 1979, James Worthy in 1982 and Bryant in 1996, Randle is a rare commodity for a franchise that traditionally trades away its first-round draft selections.
But, while expectations are high for Randle, it would be foolish to expect such a young, unproven rookie to carry too much of the Lakers load right away. Realistically, a season in which he averages 10-12 points and 8-10 rebounds should be considered a major success.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak had hoped the team could pair Randle on the front line with veteran center Pau Gasol, but as of Friday night that possibility appeared remote. Gasol turned down a two-year offer to stay with the Lakers and was leaning toward a move that would take him to the Chicago Bulls, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.
With or without Gasol, Kupchak is very high on Randle. The normally reserved Kupchak said of the selection of Randle in the draft, via Eric Pincus, L.A. Times:
He's got big-time skills. He can put the ball on the floor. He can drive and get to the rim. The bottom line is, he plays and competes at a very, very high level.
Randle has been cleared by his doctors to start playing and was anxious to suit up for the Lakers' summer league. But since his rookie contract is not signed yet—due primarily to the team waiting to see what free agent Carmelo Anthony does—Randle will have to be patient for his Lakers debut.
Randle finds himself in a good situation since the Lakers are truly in a rebuilding mode. He brings something the team has not seen in a number of years—a bruising presence in the frontcourt who will battle for offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
The L.A. Times' Bill Plaschke had this to say about Randle:
If the Lakers wanted to smooth Bryant's last laps while creating the foundation for a future without him, they couldn't have done better with the seventh overall pick. Randle is the sort of bruiser and bodyguard that Bryant hasn't had since Karl Malone. On a team that has been recently stocked with flashy jabs, he is a consistent counterpuncher. He's no Shaquille O'Neal, but he'll rumble and tumble like one.
Many people forget that Bryant averaged just 7.6 points and 15.5 minutes per game his rookie season, and didn't become a starter until his third year. Worthy averaged 13.4 points and five rebounds his first year. Only Magic (18 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.4 steals in 36 minutes) played like an NBA superstar that first year.
Randle is a great fit for a team in transition. The Lakers will need to put the right complementary pieces beside him over the next few years in order for him to flourish, but he is ready to contribute now and will have ample opportunity to do so.
Getting to play alongside his idol will give Julius Randle a head start on what should be a long, productive NBA career.