After once marking a signature piece of the Lakers’ future, Julius Randle now represents the organization’s uncertain present.
Randle suffered a fractured tibia in his right leg midway through the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ 108-90 season-opening loss on Tuesday to the Houston Rockets at Staples Center, an injury that dampens the team’s currently thin depth chart. Randle was taken off the court in a stretcher before being taken to a nearby hospital. The Lakers will have more information likely by Wednesday, including when Randle will presumably have surgery. But given that it appears Randle broke his leg, the Lakers sounded well aware of the devastating implications. Lakers coach Byron Scott also reported players told him they heard a “pop” when Randle fell to the floor.
“It’s hard. When you have a young guy like that go down, you’re already thin with the injuries that we have,” said Scott, referring to a season-ending injury to Steve Nash (back) and ailments to Nick Young (thumb) and Ryan Kelly (right hamstring). “It makes it that much harder. But the last three or four minutes, we weren’t thinking a lot about basketball. We were thinking about Julius and hoping he was okay.”
The Lakers selected Randle seventh overall from this year’s draft out of the University of Kentucky, believing his nation-leading 24 double doubles and versatile game would help expedite their rebuilding after finishing last season with their worst record in L.A. franchise history. Randle’s injury dampens the Lakers’ hope to use the 2014-15 season to develop him.
“It is heartbreaking, I saw him all summer and the work he was putting in,” Scott said. “I saw his progression he was making and the steps he took to get better. And then his first game, he went down. I don’t think anybody in that locker room was happy with the way we played. But we’re even more saddened by the fact we lost one of our young guys.”
Randle suffered his injury after driving into the lane with 6:46 remaining and making contact with Houston’s Tarik Black. Randle planted awkwardly on his left foot, and it appeared that landing caused Randle’s right leg to buckle. Randle stayed on the ground as the Lakers’ training staff and teammates immediately surrounded him closely underneath the basket.
After his leg was immobilized, Randle was helped by Lakers’ trainers and teammates before lying on a stretcher. He was soon taken to a nearby hospital.
“I just told him to keep his spirits up,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “Just keep your spirits up. Try not to think about this too much right now. There’s not much you can do it right now. Just keep your spirits up.”
Perhaps easier said than done. Lakers power forward Carlos Boozer described Randle as “down”
“We gotta band together,” Boozer said, “support him and help him get back.”
The Lakers had become impressed with Randle’s potential all through training camp. Sure, Scott often offered public criticism, such as questioning his conditioning, work ethic and court awareness. Bryant also said Randle would be “an idiot” if he failed to thrive considering the Lakers’ winning culture and demanding expectations from Scott and himself. Randle also posted only two points on 1-of-3 shooting in 14 minutes against Houston, But the Lakers saw marked improvement in Randle’s game after averaging 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 20.9 minutes through eight exhibition games.
“He was progressing just fine,” Bryant said. “He improved leaps and bounds and had confidence in his jump shot to the point where he was shooting pull ups, fadeaways and things like that. It’s tough.”
The 36-year-old Bryant could easily relate. He tore his left Achilles tendon nearly 18 months ago, an injury that sidelined him for eight months. Then, Bryant only appeared in six games last season before suffering a season-ending left knee injury.
“There’s a lot of things to think about even for myself and being a veteran with something like this is tough,” Bryant said. “For him, being a 19 year old kid, it’s tough. That’s what we’re here for and we’re here to pick him up and help him through it and take it day by day.”
In the second game of his senior year at Prestonwood Academy, Randle broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in what was considered a season-ending injury. Randle returned for five playoff games and averaged 28.8 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks en route to Prestonwood Academny’s third consecutive state championship. He was then granted an exemption to play in the McDonald’s All-American game.
“I told him to stay strong,” Scott said. “Adversity tests the true character of a man. This is adversity we’re facing with the young guy being out and something he’s facing. I felt extremely bad for him. He was crying. I told him to stay strong and this will make him a better basketball player.”
Bryant believes that will happen partly because of the support staff around him. He noted that Lakers luminaries including James Worthy and A.C. Green have constantly visited the Lakers’ practice facility. As the Lakers demonstrated during Randle’s fall, his teammates have his support, too.
“Sometimes life’s circumstances put you in a position where you have no choice but handle it that way,” Bryant said. “Julius is not going to have a choice. We’re not going to let him get down aobut this. He’s going to come back stronger.”