LAS VEGAS — If you think Jordan Hill was horribly overpaid, don't believe Nick Young is a serious professional and have concluded Linsanity was a total fluke, you still have Julius Randle.
The Lakers' offseason did not bring a free-agent superstar, which general manager Mitch Kupchak conceded Sunday was "a long shot." As a result, hopes for immediate improvement rest even more on their high draft pick, Randle, selected No. 7 overall.
Randle signed his contract Sunday and made his pro debut in the Lakers' second NBA Summer League game. Kupchak, Jim Buss and the whole scouting staff that believes so deeply in him were in the stands watching closely.
It's safe to say Randle isn't sweating any additional pressure.
He said he wasn't even really following the Carmelo Anthony limbo that ended in Los Angeles being denied and the New York Knicks bringing Anthony back.
"Out of my control," Randle said.
What Randle was looking to hear about was when the Lakers might be ready to give up on their free-agent money gymnastics—trying to preserve every dollar, if needed—and sign him, closing up his salary slot.
"I was just waiting on the call from Mitch," Randle said.
Asked if no top free agent coming to the Lakers now should create more opportunities for him as a rookie, Randle said, "It may, it may not. I'm not worried about it. What I can do is work hard, go out there and create opportunities for myself."
The call he was waiting for came Sunday, and so did the first opportunity. The performance wasn't great, with Randle mostly showing some skills with well-practiced one-on-one moves that didn't take into account how he was being defended. He was not sharp on defense. He scored 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting with two rebounds and two turnovers in 21 minutes in a 90-73 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Randle called his debut "decent" considering it was the first five-on-five he has played in three months. He last played full-out live basketball in the NCAA championship game April 7.
Without a contract, Randle has gone through only individual work in the Lakers' summer practices. And he didn't get much advance notice about this game Sunday, either.
Randle was sitting on the bus—and the bus had already begun moving away from the team hotel—in a polo shirt and shorts, not expecting to play against New Orleans, when he got the call to say Kupchak had landed in Vegas and was ready to sign him.
Randle realized he didn't even have his basketball shoes, so he had the bus stopped so he could hop off. He fetched his shoes and rushed to the arena in a separate car, signing his contract with Kupchak about a half-hour before tipoff.
What Randle did show on the court was how people who peg him as strictly a traditional, back-to-the-basket power forward are in for a surprise. More than Zach Randolph, the guys he resembled were Chris Bosh and Lamar Odom with an eagerness to face up and drive to his left.
Randle grabbed one defensive rebound and ignored both open guards, Kendall Marshall and Jordan Clarkson, to dribble the ball up himself in Odom's beloved, old grab-and-go style.
Because of what he did at Kentucky and how high the Lakers drafted him, NBA referee J.T. Orr already knows his name—warning and teaching "Julius" at one point to get out of the lane to avoid a defensive three-second violation. If you want to know what to call him, his summer teammates have opted for "Ju."
Whether Randle is ready to help Kobe Bryant and his real Lakers teammates more than Lin, Young or Hill (who is getting $9 million next season) was not a question answered Sunday.
Kupchak expects to sign most of the rest of his roster next week. He is at least thankful that LeBron James and Anthony didn't drag it out even longer because "there's only so much that's left on the board" in free agency.
Kupchak said the next roster decisions will include retaining some holdovers from last season's Lakers—one could guess that Ryan Kelly is the safest bet—and some from the outside.
Will anyone from the outside be better than Randle or Lin? Doubtful.
And also worth asking is whether Bryant is OK if no one from the outside is better than Randle or Lin.
Kupchak has been in communication with Bryant, who said Wednesday that the Lakers should feel "extremely proud" even if their efforts at a star free agent fall short.
Like Bryant and the fans, Kupchak will now have to wait a year to try again for a star to accept the Lakers' max dollars. He said the team will continue to seek out "opportunities to remain competitive, contending and flexible."
Regarding Anthony, Kupchak praised Lakers president Jeanie Buss and vice presidents Jim Buss and Tim Harris, plus legend James Worthy, for banding together in a strong pitch.
"Everybody really worked well together and made great presentations, and that's the best we can do," Kupchak said. "There’s a lot going against you when you're dealing with the new collective bargaining agreement."
Everyone around the Lakers knows that unequivocally right now.
Which is why it's more important than ever that Julius Randle is a hit.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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