Everyone moved out of Julius Randle’s way, as the Lakers forward sprinted his way up the court eager to show something he could not for eleven painful months.
The Lakers were nearing the end of a 30-minute full-court scrimmage on Wednesday here at Stan Sheriff Center when a fast-break opportunity emerged. Before the defense had any time to set up, Randle cut into the lane. His teammate, Lou Williams, made eye contact. Then, Williams lofted up an alley-oop that Randle threw down with force.
This only marked the second day of the Lakers’ training camp. But those days have meant everything to Randle, who played only 14 minutes in his NBA rookie year before fracturing his right tibia and sitting out the rest of the season. Even when he healed enough to play in Summer League two months ago, Randle averaged only 20.5 minutes per game and sat out in a back-to-back. This time, the Lakers have released Randle’s handcuffs.
“It’s been good,” Randle said, a smile forming as he said those words. “It’s been a year. It was amazing.”
It remains understandable Randle would feel that way. But it still sounded amusing. After all, Randle had just completed a 2 1/2 hour practice filled with conditioning drills, shooting exercises and scrimmaging. The Lakers would then have a two-hour evening session. Who would have thought Randle would relish such physical torture?
“Yeah, that’s true,” Randle said, “especially after last year.”
Then, Randle looked winded after going through Scott’s conditioning drills. After completing sprints, Randle often hunched over onto the ground with beads of sweat dripping down his face. This time, Randle has completed all of those drills without looking fatigued or experiencing any setbacks with his surgically repaired right leg and right foot.
Lakers coach Byron Scott notices something else, too.
“Confidence,” Scott said. “Now he feels he can definitely play at this level. Last year, he was guessing and wondering if he could.”
The Lakers selected Randle seventh overall after becoming intrigued with his versatility as a bruising power forward and playmaker. But Scott often mentioned during training camp how Randle looked lost on the court. Randle also admittedly struggled with adapting to the game’s pace.
The Lakers never could learn how Randle would handle those hiccups throughout the 2014-15 season, the campaign ending with a 21-61 record partly because of Randle’s absence. But he compensated elsewhere.
Randle lost about 20 pounds of fat and gained 10 pounds of muscle by cutting out sugary sweets, fried foods and anything else heavy on carbohydrates. He watched countless games on film and in person. Randle listened to Kobe Bryant’s advice on staying patient with step he took with rehab. He eagerly took notes during his summer workouts with Metta World Peace about body positioning, moving off-the-ball and defending. Add all that up, and Randle said he “felt the game slowing down for me.”
“He’s playing great right now. I’m really excited,” World Peace said. “He’s playing really, really well right now. I’m looking forward to seeing him make progress.”
But some of that progress has limitations.
Scott may have encouraged Randle to bring the ball up the court anytime he gets a rebound. Scott has said the same thing to Kobe Bryant, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson. But portions of Wednesday’s scrimmage featured veteran power forward Brandon Bass playing in that group. Scott insisted he will try other lineups throughout training camp, but that combination could serve eventually represent the Lakers’ starting unit. Scott also admitted he’s “still not sure” on Randle’s potential.
“That’s kind of not really our decision, but coach’s decision,” Randle said. “It’s out there playing basketball. I’m going to compete regardless. I love the game. So I’m going to compete regardless.”
Randle did that on Wednesday, ending with a painful feeling he once forget and has since relished.
“Pretty much the soreness, I forgot about that,” Randle said. “It’s cool, I guess. I’d rather be sore than on the sideline.”