A Season Lost, Julius Randle Readies His Mind and Body to Lead Lakers from Abyss

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterFebruary 27, 2015

Noah Graham/Getty Images

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The body failed him in dramatic fashion for all the world to see.

It has led to the mind, under no spotlight and with no celebrity, becoming stronger.

Julius Randle's inability to play basketball drags on at a time when the Los Angeles Lakers' season would be about almost nothing but his personal development if he was healthy.

In spite of that, there is an undeniable optimism to Randle these days. It's a spirit, more like an assuredness, that this detour has been and will be completely worthwhile for him.

"It's easy to just take this as, 'Oh, I'm hurt. I can't do anything,'" Randle said in an extended interview with Bleacher Report. "But it's not like that for me. I want to learn. I want to be as prepared as I can next year."

Randle, the Lakers' highest draft pick in 32 years, broke his leg in his first NBA game. That was four months ago, and it would seem all he has accomplished since then is some healing of the tibia in his right leg (and taking advantage of the downtime to replace the screw in his right foot, which Randle now admits was estimated as "a 50-50 chance I may need surgery in the middle of a season if it breaks some more").

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak set about ensuring Randle, 20, was engaged mentally by assigning the rookie to write up reports about Lakers games. Randle would break down the game quarter by quarter, detailing what the Lakers did right or wrong, dissecting the opponent's game plan and focusing especially on matchups at Randle's power forward position.

Julius Randle has had his knowledge of the Lakers' attack tested regularly by GM Mitch Kupchak.
Julius Randle has had his knowledge of the Lakers' attack tested regularly by GM Mitch Kupchak.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Randle enjoyed it—not so much that he is planning a post-basketball career as a sportswriter, but the process of writing his thoughts down crystallized concepts in his mind.

Randle no longer has to email his papers in to Professor Kupchak, but Randle has taken the work to his own higher level. He now keeps a personal notebook of observations, primarily scouting points he notices about other power forwards, while he watches more NBA games than probably any player on any roster in the league.

"I just sit there and watch games all day. I don't have anything else to do but sit there and watch games," he said, chuckling. "League Pass is on all day, so you can watch games all day.

"I've watched a lot of basketball, but never this much NBA basketball. You see the pace of play, the flow of the game. Put yourself in positions that you can be in the game. It helps you mentally be prepared to know what to do when you are out there."

Randle said he still talks to Kupchak "all the time" about things, but Randle's enthusiasm for independent study is irrepressible. He said his idle time while injured "has flown by." You can see the light in his eyes as he goes on about it—and as he implies he can already take most of these NBA guys he's now watching.

"Taking notes on those guys, taking notes on how I would attack those guys next year, or what they do, what do they like," he said. "Just try to become an extreme student of the game. That's for me, personally. To make sure when we're playing five games in seven nights, and it's tough to keep up next season, I'll have my own scouting report as well as the coaches'."

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

This is why Randle feels empowered despite the physical incapacity. His mind is more active as an observer and analyst than it could ever be while burdened with the primary task of grinding through the schedule as a participant.

Although he can't test them out yet, he is developing theories. That's invaluable. It's a learner's mind.

Cultivating curiosity about how things work is critical to making them work over the long haul.

So when asked if all this time not playing has chipped away at what has always been a healthy confidence, Randle responded without hesitation: "Absolutely not. If anything, it has built my level of belief. I see the opportunity. It's reassured me of my ability and the things I know I can do."

With the extra time, Randle says he has transitioned easily to be a pro off the court—for example, learning from Lakers strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco while they shop at Whole Foods together and DiFrancesco explains how important the kind of oil used in cooking is or how the word "organic" on a label doesn't make it necessarily right for Randle.

It took the Lakers' last teenage draft investment, Andrew Bynum, years to get out of the McDonald's drive-thru and hotel minibar. The Lakers' current leading scorer, Nick Young, is 29 and still having to be urged to apply video study to game preparation.

Randle even got stronger mentally in testing himself to deal with physical pain. He stopped taking the prescribed painkillers three days after breaking his leg and dealt with what he admitted was "terrible" pain for several weeks.

"I don't want to get addicted to that stuff," he said.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Randle hopes to be medically cleared Monday to begin running on an anti-gravity treadmill. He has already begun more intensive workouts in the past 10 days on the elliptical machine and stationary bike, plus range-of-motion and weight work.

"I'm able to finally get a sweat and feel like I'm building toward something," he said.

The foot will heal fully before the leg, and Randle will play on the Lakers' NBA Summer League team if all goes as scheduled.

"With how my body is reacting and how I feel," he said, "I definitely feel like I should be ready for summer league."

Randle's appreciation for studying the game doesn't mean he has gotten over not playing it. It's why he prefers to watch Lakers games on TV from the training room at Staples Center. Although Randle intends to change that soon and experience the live action from the bench, he is clear about how little he enjoys watching from so up close.

"I hate it. I hate it. It's torture," he said. "It's like you're a five-year-old kid and everybody else has candy—and you've got to watch them eat it."

Randle has tried to limit those negative thoughts and welcome his first break from "going hard-hard-hard-hard" at basketball and training since eighth grade. He adheres to a simple step-by-step path for mental growth and physical recovery.

Repeatedly and without solicitation, Randle, during the interview with B/R, references tips Kobe Bryant has given him for this process as his keystones.

"One of the things I learned from Kobe: You focus on what you're dealing with now," Randle said. "Of course, you know the big picture, but I was just focused on what I was dealing with now. Getting the swelling out of my leg. Whatever I needed to do to build toward something. I was focused on the details more than looking at the big picture. If you look at the big picture, you start losing your focus on the little things."

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant #24, and Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers pose for a portrait during the Los Angeles Lakers Media Day at the Toyota Sports Center on September 29, 2014 in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Randle is also hopeful he will be able to work out in earnest this summer with Bryant, who will be looking to complete his own recovery from a torn rotator cuff.

Bryant previously vowed to stay on Randle during recovery, and Randle said Bryant has via talks and texts: "Seeing if I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. Going about my craft the right way. Building toward something. I learned that stuff from him."

The poetry of Randle's first full season overlapping with Bryant's potentially final one has not escaped Randle, who said before being drafted: "I'm the biggest Laker fan. Probably more of a Kobe fan." When Bryant passed Michael Jordan on the career scoring list this season, Randle referred to Bryant on Instagram as "the greatest in my eyes."

This is not quite Dwight Howard trying to get Kobe out of the way.

"I've thought about it being his last year," Randle said. "With a guy like that who has put so much hard work into the game, you want to make his last year special—or convince him that it's not his last year."

However long Bryant plays and whatever talent comes to the Lakers in free agency and the upcoming draft, Randle's supposedly wasted rookie season has laid a unique foundation.

The kid who isn't even playing believes more than ever that he is worthy of Bryant passing him the torch.

"I'm paying my dues right now, doing whatever I have to do to be ready," Randle said. "But, of course, it's something you think about: Who wouldn't want to be in his position? Kob came in and paid his dues and eventually became the guy for the Lakers and someone they built around. Of course, that's something you think of as far as what you want for this organization and winning and what you want for yourself and your team.

"That's another thing I've learned from him: how he carries himself, what does he do, what's his mindset. So when you're put in a position or given an opportunity, you know how to be ready to approach it."

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


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