The tough love and accountability hovered over Julius Randle throughout his childhood. He grew up in a single-parent household where his mom ensured he studied well enough to maintain straight A’s. Randle played for an AAU team named the Texas Titans that included comprehensive workshops involving media training, etiquette tips and Bible study. And Randle has clung to these mentors both for guidance through adversity and for staying grounded through success.
Yet, that strict upbringing hardly compares to what Kobe Bryant has offered the Lakers’ rookie all through training camp. Both Bryant and Lakers coach Byron Scott talked to Randle, saying he has the potential to become an NBA All-Star one day IF he mimics Bryant’s work ethic. If not? Randle will just become another forgotten NBA player.
“It means he can’t [bleep] it up.” Bryant explained in more vulgar terms following the Lakers’ 98-91 preseason victory over the Utah Jazz on Sunday at Staples Center.
Once the initial laughter from reporters around him subdued, Bryant then offered another punchline. This one came at the expense of ESPN recently ranking him as the NBA’s 40th best player after appearing in only six games last season because of overlapping injuries to his left Achilles tendon and left ankle.
“If you [bleep] this up, you’re a really big idiot,” Bryant said. “ESPN are idiots, but you’re really a big idiot if you manage to [bleep] this up.”
Once his press conference ended, Bryant said, “you’re welcome” to this reporter, an obvious reference to his series of Nike commercials aired two years ago promoting the “Kobe System.” Those obscure albeit creative commercials featured Bryant explaining to celebrity friends how abstract concepts can lead them to the next step toward greatness.
It appears those lessons have already filtered down toward Randle. His eight points on 4-of-8 shooting and five rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench against Utah reflected his most polished version of his potential. Randle sank mid-range jumpers. He displayed sharper defensive awareness. Randle showed off his ball-handling abilities. Bryant and Scott have implored Randle to excel in all these areas.
“It’s for me to mess it up,” Randle said with a laugh as he recalled Bryant’s message. “Kobe said you can’t mess it up unless you want to. I intentionally have to mess things up.”
That is because the Lakers have expected plenty from Randle after selecting him seventh overall in this year’s draft. The Lakers have not pinned him as their rebuilding cornerstone. Even with Randle’s potential as a bruising forward capable of producing nightly double doubles, the Lakers acquired veteran Carlos Boozer off the amnesty wire. Lakers coach Byron Scott has also granted the starting power forward spot to Boozer, whose 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting, nine rebounds and six steals reflected his strong post play and surprisingly effective defense.
But the Lakers have wanted to mold the 19-year-old Rookie in their image. Through three weeks of training camp, Scott has constantly critiqued Randle’s development. Scott has pointed out Randle’s subpar conditioning. Scott mentioned two weeks ago that Randle “looked lost” on both defensive rotations and in offensive sets in most of the Lakers’ preseason loss to Golden State. This past week, Scott questioned Randle’s effort level again and made him the face of the Lakers’ frontcourt inconsistently communicating during defensive pick-and-roll coverages.
After Randle’s latest performance, Scott provided his strongest endorsement yet.
“I thought Julius came in and played great in the second half,” Scott said. “His effort was great. His communication on the defensive end was much much better. Offensively, he was really good. He made some mistakes, but it wasn’t because of lack of effort. It’s the way he has to play.”
Randle has taken Scott’s criticisms in stride. Randle took Scott’s praise the same way.
“I’m not worried about comments or anything,” Randle said. “I just want to do my job.”
He pointed out he became used to playing under such a pressure cooker at the University of Kentucky. Randle remembered how Wildcats coach John Calipari constantly dissected his game. He responded to such feedback last season with a nation-leading 24 double-doubles. Randle also reported Calipari and associate head coach Kenny Payne recently implored him during his rookie hiccups to “keep fighting.”
So when Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak recently asked Randle how he was holding up, Randle insisted not to worry.
“Instead of being frustrated and down when my name is called, I’m excited and ready to go,” Randle said. “I’m ready to bring that energy and bring good vibes. My head is mentally in a good place.”
With that mindset, Randle offered some promising moments.
After sitting out the entire third quarter, Randle opened the fourth quarter swatting away Rodney Hood’s shot attempt. Randle then canned an open 21-foot jumper. A minute later, Randle attacked the basket. He then sank two consecutive mid-range jumpers between 14 and 19 feet. Randle endlessly exploited mismatches on Utah’s Steve Novak.
“The game is so much easier for him when he just takes the shot,” Bryant said. “When guys back off him and their hands are down, just shoot it. He’s working on it a lot in practice. The better he gets at it, the more unstoppable he’ll become. He can do pretty much everything on the floor.”
That’s for sure.
For all the comparisons Randle has drawn to Memphis’ bruising power forward Zach Randolph, Lakers forward Ed Davis noticed that Randle has mirrored more of the modern version of Lamar Odom. Just as the former Lakers forward interchanged roles as a post player, facilitator and ball handler, Randle has provided the same job description.
“It’s all about putting pressure on the defense when you can outrun the bigs and have the ball too,” Randle said. “That’s what Coach wants me to do every time I get the rebound. I’m pushing the ball and making plays. I’ve been doing it my whole life so I’m comfortable with it.”
So much that it appeared Randle actually waved Bryant off from bringing the ball up the court on one play. It appeared Randle motioned to Bryant that he felt comfortable taking on that responsibility.
“I don’t know if it was Kobe or who it was,” said Randle, when asked if he waved Bryant away. “When I get the rebound, I was ready to push it and go.”
Yet, Randle hardly looks like the finished product.
Scott observed he would like Randle to play more “under control” when he handles the ball. During Saturday’s practice, it appeared clear that Randle did not perform basic stretches properly. Randle has a full taxing NBA season awaiting him that will entail physical opponents eager both to stop him and score on him.
And, of course, Bryant and Scott will continuously offer honest and biting appraisals, a test Randle will have to prove he can successfully pass over and over again.
“That’s what we’re hoping that we get this type of effort and energy every single night,” Scott said. “That’s what he has to do to continue to grow as a basketball player. “Obviously he has it in him and a world of talent. It’s a matter of him having that consistent effort every night.”