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As the NBA draft approached, team doctors warned front office executives: Feel free to choose Kentucky’s Julius Randle, but he needed surgery to protect against long-term issues with his right foot.
“Where the broken bone was held together, the bone had rotated slightly,” one NBA executive told Yahoo Sports. “It was not aligned perfectly. Our guys felt that, despite [Randle] not feeling pain, it should be fixed for long-term stability.”
Several general managers had come to that conclusion based on the recommendations of medical staff, but the Los Angeles Lakers studied the foot, the screw inserted within it and chose a different course. The Lakers selected Randle seventh overall and disagreed with the findings of several teams choosing inside and out of the lottery. The Lakers had access to study the foot longer and closer, and declared unnecessary a procedure that would’ve cost Randle two months of summertime recovery.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t be Randle’s right foot on the opening night of his NBA career, but his right tibia. He broke his leg on Tuesday night in Los Angeles, crumpling to the floor and leaving a stunned, sober Staples Center. It was a jarring sight, a 19-year-old, full of talent and character and promise, lost for months now.
The Lakers are desperate for cornerstones with whom to count upon, and Randle offers no cause for comfort. The franchise has so much invested in Randle, a 6-foot-9 forward with shooting skill and rebounding strength. The Lakers forfeited first-round picks in 2013 and '15 in the Steve Nash trade debacle – as well as two more second-round picks – and that only makes the need for Randle’s development so much more significant.
The Lakers are gutted of young, developing talent, promising a chasm that free agency won’t solve. The Lakers could be so bad this season it’s possible the protection on the draft pick to the Phoenix Suns – through No. 5 – could postpone the pick’s passage until 2016.
Since leaving Kentucky in the spring, Randle had a jagged transition into professional basketball. Randle had been so out of shape, he couldn’t properly finish a workout with the Boston Celtics, sources said. Randle had his ex-AAU coach largely running his predraft process, and most teams believed that Randle paid a price for the inexperience.
Some teams were told this by Randle’s advisers: His workouts had to be one-on-none, which made little sense given that Randle’s edge as a prospect came with physically punishing people; not so much solo in shooting and finesse drills.
For several weeks in the spring, Randle’s conditioning and the uncertainty surrounding the healing of that high school injury left his draft stock precarious. After breaking his foot in the fall of his high school senior year, Randle returned sooner than expected. Around Randle, there was a push for him to make the McDonald’s All American Game, the research of NBA teams indicated. That couldn’t happen unless Randle returned for the state tournament in Texas, which he did in 2013.
Randle practiced every day for Kentucky, never missed games and had a fabulous freshman season. Eventually, his talent started to show in the predraft process. As time progressed, so did Randle’s conditioning and stamina. He impressed the Lakers, selling them instantly in his workouts.
Through it all, Randle remained a terrific young man, humble and willing to embrace instruction. Most teams believed he had never been fully aware of the league’s concerns surrounding his foot, because he seemed surprised when the issue was raised in meetings.
Once drafted by the Lakers in late June, Randle’s progress was slowed in summer league, because the Lakers still hadn’t hired Byron Scott. Randle had no real direction on how to prepare for training camp, how to narrow the focus of his game to fit into the coach’s vision. Almost naturally, he fell into bad habits in summer league, and some of that had to be redirected in training camp. Randle became a personal project of Kobe Bryant, who has been relentlessly patient and supportive of him. Before they carted Randle off the floor, Bryant’s hand was one of the final that he squeezed.
The Lakers are a spiraling franchise, trapped between the twilight of Bryant’s greatness and a bridge to nowhere. They carried a 19-year-old talent out of the arena on opening night, and maybe most unsettling of all could be that a broken leg still isn’t the most uncertain long-term issue on that limb. For the sake of their tomorrow, the Los Angeles Lakers need something strong – something solid – and still it all feels so flimsy.
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