LOS ANGELES — The focus out of the gate for the Los Angeles Lakers will undoubtedly be on Lonzo Ball, the team's rookie superstar and No. 2 draft pick out of UCLA. But 22-year-old Julius Randle may be a bigger reason the Lakers make a leap forward this coming season.
Last year, Randle was his team's best player when focused—the challenge was staying consistent game to game and even quarter to quarter. The forward may have found an answer this offseason, working extensively with trainer Amoila Cesar to reshape his body. Cesar posted a photo in May on Instagram that showed significant improvement in Randle's physique, after just a few weeks of working together.
Randle is hoping his new body will unlock what's been missing through his first few seasons in the NBA...endurance. "If I can play without getting tired, just run up and down the court and use my physical strengths and natural attributes [and] my physical gifts, and do it on a constant basis without getting tired, I feel like that's my advantage," Randle said.
Last week, Randle represented the Lakers at the Nike unveiling of the NBA "Statement Edition" jersey for each franchise, looking noticeably leaner. "My trainer did a good job pushing me," Randle said. "The results, they just happened. I didn't expect them to happen that fast, but they did."
Recently visiting with the Laker Film Room Podcast, Cesar discussed his summer with Randle. The trainer lauded Randle's dedication, noting the Kentucky product would wake at 5 a.m. every day to drive to North Hollywood for training.
"One of his biggest concerns was being the best [conditioned] guy on the court," Cesar said. "[Now,] shots are coming easier—a lot of things are coming easier. We know when fatigue kicks in, that's when the turnovers happen or desperation shots."
"His jump shot has improved drastically. I've seen it," Cesar continued. "He's hitting a lot of threes. He's more confident in his movements."
As the Lakers went through exit meetings in April after winning just 26 games, general manager Rob Pelinka charged his players with getting in "world-class shape." Randle obviously took it to heart, and Pelinka has taken notice.
"You see Julius Randle could be on the cover of 'Men's Fitness' or something," Pelinka said recently, according to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com.
Pelinka and Randle have until the start of the season to hammer out a contract extension, but that deadline is likely to pass without a deal. Randle would be eligible to earn up to 25 percent of the NBA's salary cap starting with the 2018-19 season. The league's current projection is $102 million, translating to a maximum contract of $140.3 million over five years.
Instead, the Lakers are likely to wait until Randle is a restricted free agent next year when he'll take up just $12.4 million of the team's salary cap. That would enable president Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Pelinka to first use the Lakers' cap room to star hunt, then re-sign Randle for more (up to $25.5 million in starting salary).
By waiting, the Lakers gain the needed flexibility in spending, as well as time to see if Randle's improved conditioning translates to a higher impact on the court. "You're going to see a blue-collar player who is willing to do anything to see his team win," Cesar said.
That may be the case, but the Lakers have several difficult decisions ahead as they prepare for the summer of 2018. Randle will be competing with teammates Larry Nance Jr. and rookie Kyle Kuzma for the team's starring role at power forward. Kuzma, taken at No. 27 in June's draft, was a standout in Las Vegas with the Lakers' summer-league squad.
With Randle's $12.4 million cap hold, the Lakers project to have roughly $37 million in cap space next summer, enough to sign one player like LeBron James or Russell Westbrook at a maximum salary starting at $35.7 million.
But the Lakers have designs on landing more than one star in free agency. To lure two max players, they'll need to make additional moves to land both James and Westbrook, or pair James with someone like Paul George (at $30.6 million).
The key to flexibility is moving off the $54 million Luol Deng is owed through the next three seasons. If the Lakers can find a home for the veteran, they would next have to choose between guard Jordan Clarkson and Randle.
The issue with choosing Randle is finding a trade partner for Clarkson. And though Clarkson's $37.5 million salary over three seasons should be easier to move than Deng's, favorable salary-dump trades—particularly two in a short span—are not simple to execute.
Should Randle deliver a poor season, the Lakers may simply let him walk next summer. A strong season could make him a keeper.
Getting out of both Deng and Clarkson would give the Lakers about $66 million in spending power—enough to sign one of James or Westbrook, with enough space to add in with George.
If James wants to join with Westbrook, which has been buzzing around the league, that might require James to take a $5 million pay cut to make the numbers work. That is, assuming James is set on leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for Los Angeles.
It's uncommon for a superstar to accept less than the maximum salary. Kevin Durant was a rare exception, taking about $10 million less to enable the Golden State Warriors to re-sign Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Zaza Pachulia while also adding Nick Young in free agency.
James, Westbrook and George can agree to divvy up that $66 million among themselves. Or the Lakers can part ways with Randle to reach about $77 million in space. There's no way for the Lakers to get $102 million in space to pay all three the max.
Of course, Westbrook may sign an extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder well before next summer's free-agent frenzy. Other top free agents next summer could include DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Chris Paul and Durant.
If the Lakers are indeed able to shed the necessary salary, Randle may earn a place on what could be a star-filled roster next summer. In the meantime, he's solely focused on the season ahead.
"It seems like everything is going in a good direction, as far as the culture we're trying to build," Randle said. "Obviously, everybody loves our coaches. It's been good and I like where we're going and it should be a great year for us."
He had the chance to watch Ball, Kuzma and the rest of the team's summer squad win the title in Las Vegas.
"They looked good ... like a start of what we want to create," he said. "When everybody is sharing the ball, everybody is eating. It's contagious."
After a dedicated offseason, Randle will have the opportunity to prove he belongs on the Lakers for years to come. Los Angeles opens its preseason against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Honda Center in Anaheim on the 30th.