SAN DIEGO -- When you love something, you'll fight for it, and Julius Randle found himself scuffling and tussling with Draymond Green minutes into the Los Angeles Lakers' shortened-game victory against the Golden State Warriors. Draymond quickly realized the Lakers' budding forward had no intention of backing down, shoving Julius following a loose ball foul that left the two frontcourt players tangled and testy. Randle responded by filling up 14 points in the first quarter, grinding out the Warriors' defense with his physical style of play.
"Julius doesn't have any fear," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said of Randle battling with Green. "I think he knew from the get-go that Draymond is one of the best defenders in this league, especially against perimeter guys, and he took that challenge. He went at him right away."
Did Coach Scott like Julius showing he's got some fire behind him? "Of course," he beamed before closing out his postgame press conference with a smile spread across his face.
It was more of what the Lakers are learning to expect from Julius, who's taken his return by storm. Whether it's the Lakers' training and athletics staff praising the work he puts in, a veteran like Roy Hibbert labeling him as the future face of the NBA, or the film speaking for itself, everything is clicking for Randle right now. The entire organization doesn't seem to be running out of praise for him any time soon either, as those who've watched the steady progress are all ready to go to bat for him. Every story comes back to how hard he's worked since the injury, and how great it is to watch him flourish.
"I just love the game of basketball, honestly," Randle said when I asked him what kept him motivated during the low points of his recovery process. "I see where I want to be, I know how hard I have to work, and I have a great example in Kobe and his leadership. I'm just self-driven, and I've always been that way since I was a kid."
Randle's game is all about drive. Drive to put a broken foot behind him so he can continue taking steps toward his dream. Drive to overcome a season-ending injury less than 15 minutes into his professional career. Drives to the rim that make you wonder just how good he can be with the ball in his hands, and how a player that big can move with such flowing finesse before turning into a wrecking ball in the paint.
This story could be very different, though. Instead of Randle's redemption, it could have been about Randle's regression. Instead of Julius reaching the next phase of his career, he could have fallen back even further. Debilitating injuries to young players can derail careers, but the Texas native exemplifies the kind of culture the Lakers are trying to build. Luckily, the star their universe has revolved around for 20 seasons still has some gravitational pull left.
"Tremendously," Randle responded when asked if having a figure like Kobe Bryant has helped keep him on task. "In my eyes he's the best who's ever played this game. There's a reason why he is who he is, and when you see the hard work he puts in to get on the court, that's motivation."
Hard work to get on the court has meant growth off of it as well, which doesn't come easy when you're bogged down by a broken leg at the age of 19. Julius managed to maneuver that tricky minefield, working with a nutrition and training team that's helped him control what he's putting into his body. Julius dropping weight, putting on muscle, and not having a single critique from Scott about his conditioning is proof his process paid off.
"It takes discipline," Randle said of working on his eating habits. Perfection is unattainable, but knowing how to manage realistic goals is a skill in itself. When there's a craving or situation he can't control, he knows he has to balance those moments carefully. "Do it in moderation, but be consistent with your diet."
Things are lining up for Julius, who's been anxiously grinding in preparation for what's become an impressive return. He's translated five-minute stretches against lesser-touted prospects in Summer League into quality starting minutes against NBA players, putting a year's worth of rehab behind him. Now, he can finally focus ahead on playing the game he loves again.