LOS ANGELES – Months had passed for Julius Randle, his fractured leg had mended and, still, he sat as a solitary, seething customer in a Southern California restaurant. The trainers had let him back into the gym in March to start his long, lonely return to the Los Angeles Lakers' lineup, and Randle desperately resisted the slow, steady churn of the regimen. He wanted to go longer, harder. He wanted to stay in the gym.
"I'm frustrated," Randle texted. "I just want to play basketball."
"Patience," Kobe Bryant responded to him.
"I'm 19 years old," Randle wondered. "How do I have patience?"
"It's the only choice," Bryant told him.
Now, Randle is sitting in a corner booth of Don Chuy's in Playa Vista on a sunny September afternoon and laughs, "I do see it now."
Randle is forever grateful about the way his boyhood idol climbed down from the posters on his bedroom and into his basketball life.
"The biggest person to help get me through this was Kobe – by far," Randle says.
Suddenly, everything had come to a crashing stop for Julius Randle, a McDonald's All-America who had fast-tracked through a teenager's trifecta fantasy: Kentucky, the draft lottery and the Lakers. He loves L.A., the sun, the surf, the glamour franchise that every young star believes can make them a transcendent star. And then on opening night, Randle heard the crack of his bone and crumpled to the court.
After losing his entire rookie season to that fractured tibia in his right leg – as well as getting a screw reinserted into his right foot to stabilize an old high school injury – Randle returns with a transformed body and ethic: He's never eaten so well, never developed his frame so fiercely, never felt stronger and surer starting a basketball season. He's a hulking 6-foot-9 forward with such possibility, a cornerstone of this Lakers future, the prospect that general manager Mitch Kupchak refused to include in those brief trade talks for Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins.
Kobe Bryant's education of Julius Randle started on the floor in training camp, and stayed a constant presence once Randle was carried out of the season on a stretcher. It started in one-on-one games and long talks and Randle feeling humbled when he'd get to the arena for a preseason game and Bryant, soaked in sweat, was finishing a hard workout. "He's a five-time champion and an MVP, and I'm thinking to myself, 'What's my excuse?' "
Bryant lost his season to a rotator cuff tear in February, but balanced his own angst with months of pushing and prodding of his teenage teammate. Bryant always chooses his pupils carefully, rewarding those who demonstrate a serious-mindedness to the craft. More than that, Bryant understands Randle is one of the burgeoning talents who could give him reason to postpone retirement.
"I hope we can give him a reason to keep playing," Randle says. "I want to keep learning from him. Kobe's going to challenge you and push you. If you have a certain fire, a love for the game, that doesn't bother you. He may not always say something to piss you off, but he maybe just says something that makes you think."
As Bryant rehabbed this spring and summer, a most improbable peer emerged as part of Randle's championship lineage Lakers tutorial: Metta World Peace. So much of the Lakers' intrigue with bringing back World Peace at 35 years old centers on how impactful he's been in the gym for the young players, especially Randle.
Every day, Randle is mesmerized with the intellect of World Peace. Everything Randle tries on World Peace – the pump fake, the jab step, the subtle moves to create a sliver of space and a shot – are seldom successful.
Maybe Metta used to be stronger. Maybe he used to be quicker. All Randle knows is this, he says: "He isn't biting on anything. He has the greatest hands I've ever seen play. You've got to give him everything you've got to get a bucket on him. Everything.
"I played one on one against Kobe in the preseason last year, and you'd play perfect defense against him; you can guess right on everything and it still doesn't matter. He's still going to make the shot. Metta is the same way. He's going to guess everything right. He disrupts your rhythm. You're going to have to make the tough shot over him."
After World Peace didn't like the way Randle was stopping the ball in a practice facility pickup game, he shot him a text later in the afternoon. "Go watch how the Spurs move without the ball," World Peace instructed Randle. So, Randle turned on his laptop and started watching the simple genius of the Spurs.
As Randle proudly remembers, "The next week, [Metta] said, 'I can see you've been watching the film.' He goes out of his way to make things easy for me."
Julius Randle has grown close to guard D'Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, and has started to understand the enormity of the burden for this young core. Someday, this franchise will belong to them and that's so much of the reason these days and nights with Kobe and Metta matter to Randle, make him want to learn everything before time whisks them away for good. This is a famous franchise, a big, big job and there's so much Julius Randle wants to learn before they're gone for good.