The Lakers season will be filled with storylines to follow, but none will be more important than how Julius Randle performs through his rookie year.
Julius Randle's big debut with the Los Angeles Lakers is months away, but the seventh-overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft already has all eyes on him. After back-to-back summers of the Lakers missing on superstar talent, Randle stands alone as the new star draw in Los Angeles. His rookie season will be a hot topic of discussion year round, magnified and dissected on a routine basis. How he performs through his first campaign as a professional basketball player is the most important story going into next season.
The Lakers expected a journey to the depths of the NBA after Dwight Howard made his decision to join the Houston Rockets last summer. It was a significant blow to the team on every level, leaving the front office with their wind knocked out and plan B dialed in -- a sequence that looks eerily similar to how this off-season played out. The difference this time around, however, is the Lakers don't control the fate of their upcoming first-round draft pick.
The franchise-worst season led to Los Angeles landing Randle, who has become the first ray of light to poke through this dark tunnel. Drafting a player with the potential to be special in the NBA is a solid outcome for an 82-game cleansing. Randle won't put the franchise on his shoulders, but he'll need to be a part of the franchise's solution early in his career. The expectations are there, buried behind cautious optimism. Randle has to pan out.
He proved ready to compete at the NBA level in Las Vegas through Summer League. While Randle's box scores didn't produce jaw-dropping stat lines, his isolated play did. He relentlessly attacked his defenders off the dribble, using his big body and impressive handles to bully his way to the rim while creating open shot opportunities. He's called himself the Black Panther to Kobe's Black Mamba, and he showed plenty capable of stalking his prey under the hoop. By the final quarter of the final game of the tournament, he was grooving. Randle scored 12 points in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets, dominating the soon-to-be forgotten game in the illustrious chronicles of Summer League play. His performance was a great lasting impression before the NBA's off-season really rides into the sunset. He saved the best for last, nailing the ending.
Playing against NBA-hopefuls and fellow rookies is the first chance to explore the level at which a prospect is ready to compete. Randle looked like an NBA player in Las Vegas, outclassing the undrafteds and not-readies. He looked like the "now" player many were surprised dropped all the way to seven and the Lakers. He didn't show an expansive game and never found his mid-range stroke, but what he did show -- the driving, finishing and passing -- was impressive. There's clear elite talents on the way for Randle, and he was barely warming up.
Hiring Byron Scott as the next Lakers head coach was a crucial decision for the franchise. Scott may not lead this team back to the playoffs in his first year on the sidelines, but he must begin molding Randle into the player the Lakers need. Scott's most important role for the Lakers this season is to make sure Randle's rookie year is successful.
A clean bill of health for Julius through the season after there were doubts he could play on his surgically-repaired foot would be huge considering the Lakers' health issues as of late. Proving he deserves to be a starter over a veteran like Carlos Boozer, under a noted disciplinarian like Scott, would be a great way for Randle to earn his minutes in a very old school way. Exceeding expectations and staying relevant in the Rookie of the Year race would be the type of immediate validation that would allow the Lakers and their fans a chance to exhale. It's fair to expect Randle to check off plenty of boxes in the optimism column through his first season in Los Angeles.
Randle's initiation into the NBA has been smooth, with him coming off as a confident and engaged player looking forward to the opportunity to be a Laker. When barraged with questions of Lakers and legacy throughout Summer League, Randle's responses oozed enthusiasm going into the challenge. "There's no added pressure, it's amazing to have this opportunity. They're the Lakers for a reason. I'll have all the resources I need to be the best player I can be. I'm excited about it," Randle told media in his final post-game interview of Summer League. A similar response he echoed on a game-by-game basis, poised and ready for the media following his ride to the National Championship with the Kentucky Wildcats. It's not about pressure for Randle. He's been dealing with expectations throughout his entire life and will be ready to step into a starting role
Los Angeles' rotation at power forward will be a key decision leading into the season. What seemed like a clear chance for Randle to soak minutes early in his career became another question mark for the Lakers when they surprisingly welcomed Boozer into the fold by way of amnesty waiver claim. Will Boozer soak up minutes that could and should be shoveled to Randle's feet? Will the Lakers need Boozer to be productive if and when Randle hits the rookie wall? The Lakers proved very capable of scouting talent as they worked out plenty of players from the incoming draft class, but developing talent isn't something they've dabbled in since taking on Andrew Bynum.
What makes Randle such an ideal fit is how productive he should be as first-year player. A big man like Noah Vonleh may have more upside than Randle, but will he be able to contribute solid, significant minutes early in his career? The Lakers' roster isn't stripped down, but has a level of continuity from last season. A few players turn in strong seasons, Randle plays above expectations, and maybe there's enough in the tank to make a playoff chase at the very least.
Or maybe there's a tank in front of us getting ready to rumble through another 82 games of Lakers basketball.
The win-loss column will probably mean very little to Los Angeles this year, but Randle's development is independent of final scores. He'll have to prove he belongs in the NBA, and will surely take his bumps and bruises along the way. "He's going to be a special player. You have to let him go through those things. You have to let him learn from his mistakes, and learn from his successes. He's experienced both of those these last couple games, and he's only going to get better," former Lakers point guard Kendall Marshall said about Randle at the mid-way point of Summer League. Learning how to manage a full season of basketball and adjusting to playing against professional athletes on a nightly basis will be a challenge, and it won't always be pretty.
Coach Scott will have to identify easy ways to incorporate Randle into the offense and do his best to put him in a position to succeed. He'll also have to read when Randle needs to be pushed outside of his comfort zone, and when it's time to make him take a step back for a breather. Showing patience while Julius learns his way through his first season in the NBA will be a huge task for Scott, though spending a few years with the Cleveland Cavaliers as they brought up Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters should serve as a learning experience he can pull from.
The Lakers will be expected to embrace an old-school mentality, which starts with Scott's leadership and will be reinforced by Kobe Bryant's expectations for himself and his teammates. Bryant's outward support of Scott has been a talking point this summer, but the importance of what that partnership means for the rest of the roster has been widely overlooked. Scott will have an easier time managing the roster with Kobe serving as his right hand man and enforcer. That level of accountability could create a great environment to keep Randle's development on track. Nothing will be given to him. Julius will have to work his tail off to keep out of Scott's infamous dog house.
All indications point to Randle being ready for this moment. His hard work has brought him this far, landing him in Los Angeles with an opportunity he can't wait to work for. The Lakers need answers, and Julius can start delivering them in his first season wearing purple and gold. There will be plenty of stories unfolding for the Lakers over the next 10 months, but the one that matters most is how he performs through his rookie year. All eyes on him once the cameras start rolling.