ONTARIO — A gravity-defying steal that stopped an alley oop lob. A coast-to-coast drive that brought nearly every Lakers fan to their feet, drew a foul and ended in two made free throws. A journey across the court that captures what Julius Randle hopes becomes a lasting impression in his Lakers’ rookie season and beyond.
Randle cemented his best game in training camp. He posted a team-leading 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting and eight rebounds 24 minutes off the bench in the Lakers’ 94-86 victory Wednesday over the Portland Trail Blazers at Citizens Business Bank Arena by seemingly doing everything.
Randle canned mid-range jumpers with ease. He made defensive stops. Randle handled the ball coast-to-coast. He performed all of these tasks with both efficiency and ease, sparking one of the 7,174 fans in attendance to yell something that brought everything in perspective.
“He’s only 19 years old baby!” the fan yelled.
Here’s another thing that should leave the Lakers giddy, particularly Kobe Bryant as he sat out to rest him for the regular season beginning next week. Randle revealed he developed his ball handling that enabled him to drive coast-to-coast by emulating a certain Lakers star growing up and dismissing comparisons to a former adversary.
“People used to tell me I’m going to be the next Shaq,” said Randle, the 6-9, 250 pound forward growing in height and strength at an early age. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be the next Shaq. I want to be Kobe.’ I always dribbled the ball everywhere I went.”
So will Randle eventually showcase a patented fadeaway jumper that Bryant has perfected?
“I don’t know,” Randle said, laughing. “I guess. You’ll see.”
For now, Randle can depend on his dribbling, realizing it took him to a lot of places against the Blazers.
After intercepting Will Barton’s lob pass to CJ McCollum, Randle drove coast to coast. He attacked the basket for an open layup until McCollum sprinted back and made physical contact. Then, Randle stepped up to the stripe and made two free throws. Before that instance, Randle ran the offense at the top of the key before making two consecutive left elbow jumpers that went off the glass. After that instance, Randle ran the offense again and canned another mid-range jumper from the same location. Add it all up, and Randle scored 11 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter.
So what has spurred Randle’s improvement?
“Besides the fact that we get on him every single day about little things?” Lakers coach Byron Scott asked with a smirk. “I don’t think the kid has ever had to play hard. He never had to work as hard as he had to this year.”
Scott has sure been on Randle about a lot of things. He has questioned Randle’s conditioning. Scott has questioned his work ethic. He has questioned Randle adjusting to the pace of the NBA game after posting a nation-leading 24 double doubles last year at the University of Kentucky.
“Each game, he seems to be a little bit better,” Scott said of Randle. “We all tend to forget that he’s 19 years old. You have to give him some slack at times even though I don’t. But I should, I guess.”
Randle insists he does not mind the harsh criticisms even if he joked Scott harps on him about “little things, big things and every thing.” Randle even contends he has free reign to handle the ball, saying, “Coach told me I can do it.”
But in a more serious moment, Randle downplayed the theory that Scott is just picking on him because he is a rookie. Or that Scott is trying to show off his credentials as a three-time NBA champion with the Showtime Lakers.
Said Randle: “Coach Scott holds all of his players responsible for everything, good, or bad.”
Randle offered plenty of good, providing a wide range of skills he has only shown flashes of before in other games. He did so with assertiveness. Randle also did not reinvent the wheel, realizing his constant offseason work on his mid-range jumper and better awareness on defensive rotations will pay off.
“It’s the same looks and same thing I’m seeing every game,” said Randle, who entered the game averaging 6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 18.9 minutes through five preseason appearances. “It’s just a matter of doing it and taking advantage of the opportunity.”
And now that he has, the Lakers sounded giddier about his ceiling. Hence, why it’s hardly surprising NBA veteran Carlos Boozer interrupted Randle’s walk-off interview by congratulating him and then envisioning in the locker room what awaits him.
“If he can keep that skill level up like the rest of his skills,” Boozer said, “he’s going to be something special.”
Obviously plenty of more challenges await.
Scott still believes the NBA game has proven too fast for Randle. The verdict remains how assertive and effective Randle will remain with Bryant in the lineup. Randle has a full 82-game schedule to prove he can duplicate his blueprint performance consistently.
But as Randle dazzled the Lakers and their fans as he marched up and down the floor, it only validated Scott’s recent conversation he and Bryant recently had with Randle.
“I told him, ‘As long as I’m standing on you or [Kobe’s] standing on you, it means that we care about you and love you and want you to do well,” Scott said. “When I stop talking to you, that’s when you should be worried.”
But on Wednesday night, Randle left Portland worried with all the array of skills he displayed all over the court.