After a disappointing loss to the New Orleans Pelicans to start their latest cross-country road trip, the Los Angeles Lakers rebounded the next night against the talent-laden Chicago Bulls and scored a surprising 96-90 victory. It was an ugly win in which the team fell behind in the first quarter as usual but battled back to secure the win in the last minute. The game was further evidence that this is not the Lakers team of the past few seasons, during which they would invariably find a way to lose this kind of close contest.
While noteworthy contributions were made by Larry Nance, Jr. who had his second double-double in three games, and by Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams who scored 18 points each, this was a coming out party of sorts for Julius Randle. Not only did he tie his career record with 20 rebounds, including an astounding nine on the offensive boards, but he also scored the key basket of the game with 45 seconds left that put the Lakers ahead for good.
It was not just that Randle made the big shot with the game on the line, it was how he made the basket that was eye-opening. Both teams were struggling to score, and with the game tied at 90, there was a sense that whichever team scored next would win the game. There was a look in Randle’s eye that made it clear the Lakers would score first.
He was isolated on the left side against Nicola Mirotic of the Bulls. Mirotic is a 6’10” 240-pound power forward who was an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection after the 2014-15 season when he finished second behind Andrew Wiggins for Rookie of the Year honors. On this night, however, Randle would not be denied, powering his way into the paint, spinning to the left and banking in a shot over two other Bulls who came over to try to help.
This was the kind of play the Lakers expected from Randle ever since they made him the seventh overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft. He had the talent to go higher, but teams were worried about a lingering injury to his foot suffered during his one season at the University of Kentucky. When he showed up for Summer League, he was out of shape and very unpolished. He played out of control most of the time, had no mid-range shot, and while he could bully his way to the rim, he could not finish with any consistency.
Then, of course, he played only 14 minutes of his first game before breaking his leg and missing the entire season. Although technically last year was his sophomore year everyone knows he was really a rookie. He finished with averages of 11.3 points and 10.2 rebounds. While he averaged an impressive double-double for the season, he made only 42.9 percent of his shots which is poor for someone who plays so close to the rim. He also had a habit of disappearing for long stretches of a game and did not have a key role in the fourth quarter of close contests. While he began the season as a starter, he was later demoted and spent much of the season coming off the bench.
There were many questions about Randle entering this season. He was the subject of trade rumors over the summer, frequently mentioned as part of a package for the team to acquire players like DeMarcus Cousins or Paul George. Instead of becoming distracted, he reportedly worked very hard to refine his game and arrived in camp in great shape. He seemed confident and ready to assume a leadership role on the Lakers’ young squad.
Coach Luke Walton is an unabashed Randle supporter, and this has enabled him to thrive so far this season. Playing slightly fewer minutes than last season in Walton’s balanced system, he is scoring more points while connecting on 52 percent of his shots. His mid-range shot still needs to improve, but he is shooting it more with confidence and is even finishing at the rim with this right hand occasionally, something he did not do at all last year. He is also playing much better defense, and as a result, Walton is not afraid to play small ball with Randle and Nance in the frontcourt down the stretch in the fourth quarter, and they are striving in the role.
Randle has also become an excellent passer, which given his size and ball handling skills makes him even more formidable playmaker. Most fans will remember his baiting Tyson Chandler earlier this season in a victory over the Phoenix Suns. Chandler thought Randle was going to bully his way to the rim, but with the shot clock running down he whipped a pass crosscourt to an open Jordan Clarkson for a crucial three-point shot. Randle does not disappear in games like he did before and is much more engaged and focused.
Perhaps the most important thing about Randle this season is that he exudes quiet, intense confidence and is driven to be a winner, as opposed to last year when he would get down and withdraw when things weren’t going his way. He has indeed become a team leader. Off the court, he is engaged to be married and expecting his first child, which certainly is part of the maturation process. After celebrating his 22nd birthday the other day, if he stays healthy, Randle is poised to make a big leap forward on the court in the coming months.
D’Angelo Russell has missed the last six games due to knee soreness, and it is unclear when he will return. Nick Young is injured and will likely miss the next month. Instead of falling apart against the Bulls, Randle held the team together with his fire and passion not to mention his 20 rebounds and key shot at the end. His play against the Bulls is a reflection of what Randle has become, someone who will keep attacking and won’t be denied.
Randle is so far the Lakers most improved player this year, and he opened a lot of eyes around the league with his strong play this season before recently suffering a hip pointer injury and missing three games. He is back now, and with Russell and Young injured, this is the perfect time for Randle to step up and take over games the way he should with his physical gifts. Maybe he is finally ready to bring that energy and intensity every night, not just occasionally. Watching their power forward grab a rebound and charge up the court with the ball before finishing strong at the rim or dishing to a teammate for a layup, gives the Lakers a big competitive advantage.
This is Randle’s time, and if he stays healthy, there is reason to believe he will become a real force in the NBA before this season is over. It should be fun to watch.