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Kobe Bryant's Final Task with Lakers Is to Unlock Julius Randle's Potential

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistMay 13, 2015

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 expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

This coming season will offer a symbolic beginning and end for the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant will enter his 20th and likely final year in the league, while Julius Randle will resume his NBA career after his debut was put on a year-long delay.

Both players suffered notable injuries during the 2014-2015 campaign—Bryant had shoulder surgery after 35 games, while Randle made it through just 16 minutes in his first game before suffering a broken leg that ended his season before it ever truly began.

Serena Winters @SerenaWinters

Post-injury Julius Randle said Kobe Bryant was constantly checking on him to make sure his head was in the right place

The closing chapters of Bryant’s magnificent career have not been what he would have hoped for—punctuated by three serious injuries in a row and further blemished by historic back-to-back losing seasons.

A fast-fading superstar would like nothing more than to go out in a blaze of championship glory.

But there are other ways to burnish a legacy as well, including passing the torch to the next generation, and in doing so, helping to unlock Randle’s considerable potential.

The hard-charging power forward from Kentucky was the Lakers’ No. 7 pick in last year’s draft. Summer league and training camp offered intriguing glimpses of his potential—a 6’9”, 250-pound freight train with surprising agility and ball-handling skills. The left-handed big was even compared to one of the key players from L.A.’s recent title years—one Lamar Odom.

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Forum Blue and Gold’s Darius Soriano examined the similarities last summer:

Besides the left-handedness, Randle’s aforementioned ability to play out on the floor and take advantage of his ball handling skill is very much like LO. Add in the nice mix of passing, touch around the rim, and sneaky athleticism (though Randle seems to have even more than Odom did) and there is a good comparison to be made.

Bryant and Odom spent seven fruitful seasons together developing the kind of seamless synchronicity that doesn’t happen overnight. The mentor/student relationship between a five-time champion and a relative beginner will be much different—briefer and perhaps more intense.

For there is much to teach and much to learn, and in such a short time.

Fortunately, Randle—so enamored of Bryant growing up—will be ready to soak up the experience like a sponge.

In a piece he wrote for The Cauldron in March, the rookie made it clear that his injury downtime didn’t preclude learning from the master:

Since last summer, I have spent countless hours watching and talking about basketball with Kobe. Not many people get that kind of opportunity, but it’s allowed me to study the game in a way I never could when I was actively playing it, and think about the path to development in more nuanced ways.

The article is laced with reverence for “the guy who was my boyhood idol,” and it speaks to a willingness to accept guidance and tough love that isn’t present with every player.

Learning actual techniques and timing are one thing, but there is a level of commitment that Bryant demands from teammates that can be daunting. And in some cases, that can be too much to handle.

During an interview with Sam Amick for USA Today Sports in February, Bryant spoke about the type of competitive DNA that is necessary to carry a franchise, and why Dwight Howard was never the right fit for the Lakers during the 2012-2013 season.

“I tried teaching Dwight,” Bryant said. “I tried showing him…But when he saw the reality of it, it made him uncomfortable. And it’s very tough to be able to fight through that, to deal with that challenge.”

That isn’t likely to be an issue with Randle, who wrote glowingly about the sense of purpose that Bryant demands: “That’s the thing about No. 24: When he says something, you listen. And you believe him.”

As Randle relayed on an ESPN SportsNation appearance, Bryant has already demonstrated some valuable one-on-one schooling. 

The Mamba will have many other tools at his disposal when it comes to unlocking the 20-year-old’s potential. Speaking with Lakers reporter Mike Trudell in March, Bryant mentioned fundamentals that he’ll share with Randle this summer (h/t Lakers Nation): “Footwork. A lot of it is footwork and timing.”

Imagine Randle learning to improve his mid-range jumper by implementing Bryant’s legendary pivot-step and jab-fake?

Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding recently wrote about the young post player’s recognition of this upcoming season as a fleeting moment, and his determination to do Bryant proud.

"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."

It will be a compelling storyline—two players at opposite ends of the NBA time continuum, one just beginning to leave his mark and the other writing his epilogue.

October 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts with forward Julius Randle (30) after a foul is drawn against the Utah Jazz during the second half  at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Spo
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

But despite the symbolism of transition, there will also be the very real building blocks of the game.

Bryant will teach by example, about time-and-sweat equity and the needed repetition—doing something over and over, obsessively, until it’s done right. He can explain how to get the most out of each coach along the way, even if you don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Remember how much Bryant clashed with Phil Jackson in the early years before finally embracing the knowledge?

And then there is the thing that two teammates have each already fought through simultaneously—dealing with the pain and frustration of major injuries during such a crucial time, and emerging on the other side with no less determination.

Nobody can yet predict what kind of season the Lakers will have next. But as Bryant resumes his battle with Father Time, he can add one more accomplishment—helping to pave the way for future glories.

And that includes putting Randle into the best possible position to succeed, long after Bryant himself has played his last game for the franchise he led for so long.

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