In a year the Los Angeles Lakers set a new mark for most losses in a season in franchise history, the most consequential one occurred in the season opener. Rookie forward Julius Randle laid crumpled on the hardwood floor, his leg broken on a non-contact injury less than 14 minutes into what the Lakers hope will be a long and productive professional career.
There was no rhyme or reason to the injury. No one to blame but fate. Some would spiral downward, cursing their poor luck. Randle took the opposite approach:
Since last summer, I have spent countless hours watching and talking about basketball with Kobe. Not many people get that kind of opportunity, but it's allowed me to study the game in a way I never could when I was actively playing it, and think about the path to development in more nuanced ways.
Randle wrote the preceding sentences in a column he penned for the Cauldron in March. Mental development is an important aspect of any young player's growth. That being said, it is still bittersweet to ponder just how much more Randle could have learned if he was able to practice his new habits in live games rather than only in his (and our) imaginations.
Julius seems to have found the right balance between remembering the injury to as a motivational tool while also moving forward with his rehabilitation. In his essay for the Cauldron, Randle attributed some of his attitude to advice given to him by Kobe Bryant in the days following his injury."This is no time for a pity party," [Bryant} said. "Your recovery starts NOW," Randle recalled.
The Black Mamba is molting one last time, shedding the skin of a basketball player and readying himself for a life beyond the game. The best case scenario for the '14-15 Lakers season was to watch the franchise's most recent superstar train the kid who the team hopes can help fill his large shoes.
Instead, both of them spent the majority of the year sitting courtside as well dressed spectators, and the rookie's education would not be open to the public other than in limited glimpses of pregame warm-ups and Vines of from the team's practice facility:
"If you F this up, you're a really big idiot. ESPN are idiots, but you're really a big idiot if you manage to F this up," Bryant advised Randle (as only he can) after a preseason win over the Utah Jazz.
A little over six months later, we still know very little about whether Randle will "F this up" from an on-court perspective. Randle's handles -- his herky-jerky, dribble drive game -- could fail to live up to expectations, or he could continue battling the injury bug. No scenario is unfathomable given that we have almost zero new information about Randle to work with.
But from what we now know from following Julius the person all season long, he seems unlikely to mess up his time with the Lakers from a mental standpoint.
"I learned a lot. How to be a pro, what it means to be a Laker, work-ethic wise," Randle said of a lost season that he and the team did their respective bests to salvage. In stark contrast is how little we have learned about whether those efforts will pay off for the player or the team in the future.
Next season should hold more answers regarding whether this season will be nothing but a blip on Randle's career bio, or a harbinger of more disappointment to come. Either scenario would at least be more satisfying in it's tangibility than the nebulous purgatory of that was his rookie season.