Julius Randle's Development Poses Final Leadership Test for Kobe Bryant

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 22, 2014

USA Today

LOS ANGELES — His basketball legend already written in stone, Kobe Bryant's virtue as a man again has found itself bandied about the digital arena today the very same way as in newspapers, radio and TV 10 to 15 years prior.   

Meanwhile, Bryant spends his time working out with Wesley Johnson, teaching Nick Young how to watch film and offering secret tips to Jeremy Lin, so maybe Kobe isn't the troll scaring away potential teammates some media reports suggest.   

In reality, Bryant is only doing what he has done for quite some time. He wants to win, and he's doing what he has learned from Phil Jackson about pushing buttons as soft or hard to help guys grow immediately and give him and the Lakers a better chance.

Now comes Julius Randle, 19. He is here to build his own legacy, but how he does it will very much be a reflection on Bryant. Either Randle will support what Bryant forged with Pau Gasol or reinforce that Bryant sparred with Shaquille O'Neal and failed to connect with Dwight Howard.

The big relationships are make or break.

Bryant became an NBA champion in the post-Shaq era by giving his personal shooting program to Trevor Ariza ("I used it like it was the Bible," Ariza said), mentoring Sasha Vujacic on video analysis and defensive focus and befriending and mentoring Shannon Brown.

But it was Bryant's deep, effectual understanding with Gasol that marked that group.

And what makes a team go or stop is whether its stars are aligned or crossed.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 19: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during a game against the Utah Jazz at STAPLES Center on October 19, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

A fair interpretation was put forth in Henry Abbott's recent ESPN article about some top players, as in the case of Howard, not being excited about the idea of joining Bryant with the Lakers. There lies a fundamental risk for any star joining the Lakers of losing his precious status of "the man" because of two factors: Bryant's control-freak tendency limits your opportunities, and you are exposed as not being up to his level of commitment and excellence.

(The thrust of the article blaming Bryant for the demise of the Lakers is way out of scale, however, and the recaps of Ramon Sessions leaving and Paul George not coming are flat-out wrong. Sessions had hoped to return to the Lakers, but they went and got Steve Nash; George has patterned his career after Bryant and reveres him.)

The Lakers need Randle to become the next face of the franchise, so integral that his personality has to be considered in the makeup of the team. Even if that ascent doesn't fully happen alongside Bryant, it still qualifies as torch passing if Randle shows right now that he's going for great, not good.

And if Randle shows right now that he is truly a Kobe guy, then this can become a real bridge to the Lakers' future.

As it is with any relationship, there has to be a match.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Bryant made headlines by loudly and profanely suggesting late Sunday night that Randle would be a fool if he failed to take advantage of mentors such as himself, his own once-upon-a-time rookie mentor Byron Scott, future Hall of Famer Steve Nash and a proven veteran at Randle's power forward position in Carlos Boozer.

"If you f--k this up," a laughing Bryant told reporters about Randle, "you're a really big idiot."

As eye-catching as Bryant's words were, the more important ones were spoken by Randle just minutes before in another corner of the Lakers' locker room at Staples Center. Randle reflected on the advice Bryant has offered him privately—and you can decide how closely Randle was listening.

"It's up for me to mess it up," Randle said, keeping it PG. "Kob said, 'You can't mess it up—unless you want to.' Intentionally, I can mess things up. Having a coach like Byron, learning from greats like Kob, Booz, Nash, all those guys—on top of that, playing for the Laker organization, which has had much success in the past and knows how to deal with it and knows how to prepare for it—I'm in the perfect situation."

And speaking specifically about Bryant's example, Randle said: "The only answer to why he's so advanced is he's put in the work. He's unbelievable."

Randle grew up in the Dallas area being a Kobe fan more than a Lakers fan. (Even when Randle posted a throwback photo of himself on Instagram with the caption, "Oh y'all didn't know I grew up a LAKER fan?" the boyish Randle was actually wearing his white jersey backward—showcasing the No. 8 and "Bryant"—and you know what they say about playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back.)

Randle is most definitely on board with Bryant now, including on one fundamental principle. Bryant once shared the same suggestion with a raw Blake Griffin: If you can shoot, you should shoot.

The upshot is simple. The sooner a guy who can get to the basket with ease establishes his counterpunch, the sooner he graduates to unstoppable.

The truth is that Randle is not a polished post player, no matter how much he filled that role at Kentucky because the Wildcats offense worked best with Randle drawing multiple defenders.

Kentucky put a damper on Randle's face-up game and nice jumper, and he has been trying to get back to that this preseason. That stuff is what blew the Lakers away in Randle's predraft individual workout—the quickness, finesse and shooting to go with the power.

So when a switch results in 6'6" Utah Jazz guard Carrick Felix guarding the 6'9" Randle on Sunday night and Randle drives into a tough leaner that misses, every Lakers assistant coach gestures to Randle with a just-shoot-it motion. Randle does a minute later, stepping confidently into an 18-footer.

After that, Randle puts the stutter-step fake drive on Jazz center Enes Kanter, shuffles slightly to his right and sinks the jumper from the right elbow. Bryant can be seen sneering on the Lakers bench at just how nasty that is. Unstoppable, even.

So, hurry up, and have Randle learn all this and join Bryant on the starting unit, right? The inverted possibilities of Bryant's post play and Randle's first step could be fascinating together.

Well, Lakers coaches have already seen how Randle, even when his motor is revved up, defers to Bryant and dumps the ball to him or just wants to set screens for his idol when they play together. There's also the thorny issue of Boozer's pride in remaining a member of the starting lineup.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 30:  Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a photo with Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak during his introductory press conference on June 30, 2014 at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California.
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

When the day comes that Randle's development might need a jump-start, perhaps starting him will be considered. General manager Mitch Kupchak made it clear just before camp, however, what it should feel like when a kid first joins the team.

"It doesn't do any good," Kupchak said, "to have high expectations of a player like that."

Fair enough, yet Randle is clearly not out of his league right now. And what will he be in, say, one month, when he turns 20?

When Bryant was 20, in his third NBA season but without the physique Randle possesses, Bryant started every game for the Lakers and averaged 19.9 points on 46.5 percent shooting.

Is it possible that Randle's mom really means it when she says her son is mature beyond his years—and perhaps he is more prepared to excel at his first job than even the Lakers brass thinks?

"I know what I can do," Randle said.

Randle has been readying for this life longer than you know.

He was in fifth grade when he joined a select team in Dallas with elite private coaching and training—funded by a billionaire dad, Kenny Troutt, who had the kids staying at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for a tournament, according to The Dallas Morning News. They even took road trips on the Dallas Mavericks' and San Antonio Spurs' team planes.

Bryant's unshakable belief in himself and his destiny that isn't for everyone? Randle gets it, he really does.

The sooner Randle can prove he gets it, the sooner the stories will be about the Lakers moving forward instead of back.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.