EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Julius Randle has heard more times than he cares to count how Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers will put on a full-court press this summer for two superstar free agents at his expense.
The Lakers’ big man is fully aware that his future is tied solidly to the team’s master plan to woo the likes of LeBron James and Paul George this summer and that he will more than likely have to go to help clear up to $70 million in cap space.
“Oh, man, it came to a certain point where I was just numb to it,” Randle said.
But Randle is not sitting idly by and accepting whatever his fate may be. Instead, he’s doing all he can to show the Lakers, and the rest of the league, what he can do.
With James in Staples Center for perhaps the last time as a Cleveland Cavalier on Sunday, Randle turned in a superstar performance, posting a career-high 36 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks before a nationally televised audience. He made his final nine shots and scored 19 points in the last 18 minutes to turn a close game into a Lakers rout.
Randle is trying to alter the narrative about him having to go in order to land James and George by playing the best basketball of his career, and in the process, he’s doing his best to make the Lakers think twice about what to do with him.
“I haven’t talked to a lot of other coaches about him, but what he’s doing right now, he has to be on everyone’s radar,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He’s playing unbelievable basketball. He’s a matchup nightmare for teams; he’s versatile. This is just me guessing, but I would imagine most teams are pretty impressed with what he’s doing.”
Even James had to take notice of Randle, who is averaging 18.6 points and 9.2 rebounds since entering the starting lineup on Dec. 29.
“Everybody’s had a hard time with him as of late,” James said.
Before giving James a taste of what he can do, Randle recently allowed himself to wonder what it might be like for one of the league’s quickest and hungriest big men to run the floor and be fed by James for an easy dunk, and what it would feel like to have James cover his back on weakside defense.
Yes, the guy who is supposed to be one of the two critical financial maneuvers needed to secure $70 million in cap space to lure James and George — along with stretching the remaining two years and $36.8 million on Luol Deng’s contract — wonders what it would be like to stay and play alongside a superstar like James.
“It would definitely be interesting because we are building something. We really see our young core developing, so it would definitely be something interesting,” Randle said recently of playing with James only after insisting he has his mind focused on finishing the season strong for his team. “I played with [Kobe Bryant]. … What you learn from Bean as far as mentality and just the little things, his work ethic, I would love to play with Bron and learn the same things.
“[Learning and soaking in] what makes him so great, what does he do that makes him so great and how does he make everybody else so great. He has made a living off of making teammates better. So you have a guy like that, it makes a lot of things easier, I would say.”
Little in his life has come easy for Randle, but he doesn’t complain about earning things the hard way. It’s what has molded him.
Raised by his mother, Carolyn Kyles — who played basketball at Texas-Arlington — and his sister, Nastassia, in Dallas, Randle always had everything he needed. But just as he has to earn almost everything he gets by bullying his way inside the paint, the 6-foot-9 forward’s path has not been as smooth as some lottery picks’, whether it was growing up without his father, Matthew Randle, in his life or breaking his leg in his rookie debut in 2014.
“I have been through a lot,” Randle said. “My life since being in the NBA, the ups and downs of winning 17 games [in 2015-’16], breaking my leg, coaching change, players that you are close with getting traded, the frustration of playing time, all that type of stuff, you really learn to take everything in stride and really learn to have patience.”
This season alone has been a microcosm of Randle’s career. Arriving at camp in the best shape of his life with the kind of sculpted body that general manager Rob Pelinka said was eye-popping enough to be featured on the cover of a fitness magazine, Randle had to overcome a rocky start that could have derailed the most important season of his career.
First, the Lakers did not extend his rookie contract, opting to maintain as much cap flexibility as possible, even if Randle would have been willing to offer a discount to stay a Laker.
Randle was upset and angry. And Mount Randle was only beginning to boil, as Walton would test, poke and prod his team’s enforcer.
Walton brought Randle off the bench for the first 33 games of the season with his playing time fluctuating. The two often seemed to butt heads, with the coach and player shooting glares at each other or briefly arguing on the court at times. Behind the scenes, they worked like a couple trying to keep a marriage alive with heart-to-hearts that took place over long phone calls and late-night meetings at the team’s practice facility.
Walton would tell Randle what he expected from the power forward and how he envisioned Randle playing and flourishing. Randle would watch the film and argue he was delivering what Walton wanted. And so the tug-of-war continued between a coach who was raised by Phil Jackson’s alternative methods of motivating and cultivating players and a hard-nosed player whose stubbornness can be both a strength and a weakness.
In today’s NBA, when most coaches shy away from criticizing players publicly, Walton tested Randle both publicly and privately at the risk of alienating his toughest player, and one beloved by his teammates, all to get the best out of Randle.
“I challenge Julius harder than anybody else on the team,” Walton said. “It took a little bit of time [to figure out how much to challenge]. The first couple of times I did it last year didn’t go so well. Like, he kind of went into a shell. So I had to kind of pull off. And as our relationship continued to grow and that trust really built up, he was able to handle it a little bit better and better.”
Walton said a turning point came when his big man called him a few weeks into the season to say he wanted to put everything behind them and move forward and make things work. While the second-year coach might be more patient and lenient with prospects like Ball and Brandon Ingram, Walton still remained hard on Randle, wanting the best out of him. When the coach held a team meeting in the middle of a nine-game losing streak to air out issues, teammates stood up for Randle over how he was being handled and utilized. Walton, though, was already planning to insert Randle into the starting lineup before that meeting, and he started him in the next game.
“You could say it’s a blessing in disguise,” Randle said of his lack of playing time early, before talking about his relationship with Walton. “[Walton] came to my wedding. He always has given me the most support, asking me how my son is doing, my family, everything. It is always bigger than basketball. When you know something like that, you can handle the tough love. … I guess you can say we butted heads, but it was never personal.”
And if there was anything that Randle did take personally, whether it was his contract or playing time, Walton wanted his enforcer to channel it toward taking it out on opponents. And if that meant ultimately proving the Lakers wrong about not extending him, or if they don’t keep him this summer, so be it.
“You didn’t get an extension, go prove to us that we were wrong,” Walton said. “It is not that we don’t want you. That is not it at all. Play with that chip on your shoulder. So it was more along the lines of using anything that happens in life, whether it is the contract extension or people who don’t believe, use that as motivation to become better.”
There are only nine players in the NBA averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes this season (minimum of 1,000 minutes played): DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Enes Kanter, Kevin Love, Bobby Portis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Vucevic and Randle, whose 21.8 points per 36 minutes are a career high. The majority of the players in that group have contracts that pay them more than the $4.1 million Randle is making in the final year of his rookie contract.
“If he keeps his motor up, nobody can guard him,” Isaiah Thomas said of what he has learned in the 13 games he’s played with Randle since being traded to the Lakers. “Nobody can guard him.”
In addition to his statistical productivity, Randle also represents the rare big man who can switch in Walton’s defensive scheme and handle smaller guards. He had the fourth-most switches on direct picks this season entering last weekend, behind only Houston’s Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson and Golden State’s Draymond Green, according to Second Spectrum.
“He’s that hybrid forward position that five or six years ago, there wasn’t necessarily a place for him in the league,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said before Randle set the tone by bullying the Heat for 21 of his 25 points in the first half of a 131-113 Lakers win on March 1. “And now everybody is trying to find a guy like that.”
Julius Randle takes Hassan Whiteside one-on-one and finishes through contact at the rim.
There are still maddening times when Randle puts his head down and dribbles full-steam ahead toward the basket only to draw a charging foul or turn the ball over. But the fourth-year forward, who missed all but 14 minutes of his rookie season with a broken leg, is starting to show the ability to read defenses, including with his back to the basket, to pass out of the post to an open 3-point shooter on the opposite wing.
“There’s so much improvement,” said assistant coach Jesse Mermuys, who works closely with Randle. “Last year was like, grand slam and then strike out, grand slam, strike out. And now it is way more steady.”
Walton and Mermuys repeatedly credit Randle with how he has handled his contract situation, trade rumors and all the free-agency talk. There is a calm to Randle that wasn’t there last season. If he gets agitated now, Randle said he opens a bottle of wine and spends time with his wife, Kendra, and his 1-year-old son, Kyden, and lets the most important things in his life wash away any basketball frustration. Randle also said his agent, Aaron Mintz, has been a calming influence.
“I don’t sweat the little things [anymore],” said Randle, who also has continued his tear despite seeing close friend Jordan Clarkson dealt to Cleveland at the trade deadline. “If I miss the first five shots of the game, I don’t really [let it bother me] and know that the next five are going in. I don’t sweat bad games. … Spending time with my son and getting married [last summer], my faith, it is hard for me to really sweat the little things.”
As for where he and his family will be living next season, Randle just hopes he will be with a team that will continue to develop his skills and let him grow as a player.
The Lakers have up until June 30 to extend Randle a qualifying offer valued at $5.5 million. That will make him a restricted free agent with a cap hold of $12.4 million. And starting on July 1, a team can extend Randle an offer sheet. If Randle can find a suitor early, before James and George make up their minds, he can put some pressure on the Lakers, who have a two-day clock to match a deal when the NBA’s annual player-movement moratorium ends on July 6.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks estimates Randle’s market to be around $12-14 million per year, and a team such as Dallas, Brooklyn, Atlanta or Sacramento could have the ability to offer Randle something in the neighborhood of $56 million over four years.
If the Lakers get only one max free agent, or perhaps none, the team’s seventh pick in the 2014 draft could remain with the team, though management likely would want to maintain its cap flexibility for the summer of 2019 in that case.
“It would be tough to say no to L.A., honestly,” Randle said with a chuckle when asked how much he wants to remain a Laker. “It is the place that drafted me. I would love to be here. I have to do what is best for the family and hopefully they want me here as well.”
But then Randle talks about what he has done this season, and a sense of calmness comes over him.
“I knew I had a place in this league,” Randle adds of his play this season. “Whether it was here or not.”