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LOS ANGELES – Julius Randle cocked his head to the right, then the left, dodging with a hearty smile the venom spewing from Sacramento Kings All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins confronted Randle at the end of a Los Angeles Lakers’ win last month with a chest bump and a few choice words. Randle’s teammates gathered around to serve as peacekeepers or out of curiosity for an odd Kentucky alum altercation. Through it all, Randle remained calm, stood firm and responded to Cousins with that grin and a fair amount of trash talk of his own.
“I don’t back down from anybody,” Randle, 22, told The Vertical about his reaction to what Cousins called “some friendly UK love” last month. “Cous is my boy, though. But in the heat of the battle, I don’t care who it is. From night to night, I’m going to battle.”
In the final years of Kobe Bryant’s 20-year run in Los Angeles, the Lakers were about as threatening as a box full of puppies as they racked up losses and lottery picks. But in the post-Kobe era, a franchise not disposed to rebuilding or underdog status is taking on a different personality. Attitude is boiling over in myriad ways – from the rebirth of Nick Young’s swag, the ice water in D’Angelo Russell’s veins, the torrent of Lou Williams scoring barrages, the promise of Brandon Ingram’s versatility, and especially the rugged contributions of Randle.
“It’s about me bringing that edge, that tenacity. That fire,” Randle told The Vertical.
The first piece in this unusual, draft-induced roster reboot for the Lakers, Randle lost practically his entire first season to a leg injury, then spent his second season trying to overpower everything in his path with direct, and often clumsy, beelines to the basket. But Cousins, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only active players to record the same number of double-doubles through their first 100 games (39) as Randle. And now Randle, averaging 13.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists, is showing he has more to offer as a playmaker. He has already tripled the number of games with at least five assists from last season (six games to two) and recorded a triple-double.
“I’m just trying to be as versatile as I can be. Try to make the game easier for me. Let things come to me. Obviously work on my skill set and just learn the game better,” Randle told The Vertical. “I think it’s important for me to bring it every night. It’s just about being consistent with it.”
The third year has indeed been the charm for several members of a 2014 draft class that arrived among considerable hype but has been slow to launch, outside of Andrew Wiggins, for several reasons. After a two-year injury delay, Joel Embiid, the third pick that year, is the Rookie of he Year frontrunner with his refusal to let a minute restriction limit his dominance. Jabari Parker, the second overall pick who had most of his rookie year lost to a knee injury, is coming into his own in Milwaukee. And now Randle, the seventh pick, is piling up double-doubles in what he considers his true sophomore campaign.
“I had a whole year off, trying to get my rhythm and at the same time trying to learn the NBA game. It was difficult. But it was valuable, very valuable for me,” Randle told The Vertical. “Last year was kind of like my rookie year, but it’s just maturity, getting playing experience and learning the game and day by day getting better. It’s been great. Obviously, it’s still a learning process. Trying to be a lot more consistent and building off of it.”
The Lakers might not have any potential superstars in the high draft picks accumulated over the years, but coach Luke Walton is taking special measures to squeeze out their talents. Walton has challenged Randle to do more than just occasionally barge on the scene but to become a reliable force.
“To me, he could be a very dynamic power forward in this league,” Walton told The Vertical. “When I saw the way that he could push the ball off of rebounds, and how strong he was, and how under control he could be at changing direction, I just thought if we really encouraged him to be a facilitating, modern power forward, he could be as good as he wants, really. Because he has a good work ethic, is a great teammate.”
On a team with so many ball-dominant scorers, Randle often has to aggressively take his opportunities or risk being a bystander. Walton told The Vertical that Randle gives the Lakers their toughness whenever he’s engaged, and the coach hasn’t hesitated to get on him for being passive. “You don’t treat everybody the same. You find what motivates and what works well with different guys,” Walton told The Vertical. “I told him, ‘If you don’t want that, if you don’t want to be that player and you’re messing up and not doing things right and hard enough and you don’t want me to tell you, then I won’t tell you.’ He said, ‘No, coach. That’s not what I want. ’ He said, ‘Stay on me. Push me. Let me know.’ So we have a verbal contract with each other.”
Walton has encouraged Randle to see that the Lakers are “his team as much as anybody else’s” and that back-and-forth banter has contributed to Randle’s confidence. “It’s been great. It’s the trust and communication that we have. I can talk to him about anything. To have that from my head coach, to be able to talk about anything, is cool,” Randle told The Vertical. “Makes a huge difference. Not only in his trust and belief in me, but he sees what I can do and he wants me to affect the game in a bunch of different aspects, so that’s cool.”
After a recent loss to the Utah Jazz, Randle walked out of Staples Center wearing a fluorescent pink sweatshirt that read, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” The Lakers’ struggles with Bryant didn’t lend much hope they’d be better without him, but the youngsters now feel more empowered and responsible. “We’re all playing for each other. It’s simple. Playing for each other and competing as hard as we can,” Randle told The Vertical.
With injuries to Russell and Young, the Lakers have hit a difficult stretch in recent weeks, stalling some of the early progress that included some eye-popping wins over Golden State, Chicago, Houston, Oklahoma City and Atlanta (twice). Youth and inexperience were the constant recipients of blame in recent years but Randle told The Vertical that is no longer an acceptable excuse for a team whose expectations far exceed outside projections.
“Every night, we never come in with the mindset that we’re going to lose,” Randle told The Vertical. “We come in thinking we’re going to compete as hard as we can, bust our butts, play for each other and go from there. You’re one of the best basketball players in the world. We all are. We have an opportunity to go out and get better. We can’t use youth as an excuse to not grow and build. Eventually, we got to turn a corner. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
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