LAS VEGAS -- Julius Randle's anticipation came to an end Friday evening as he played in his first game since breaking his leg, but his battle to return to form has only just begun. Randle took the floor at the Thomas and Mack center and left battered and bruised Timberwolves in his wake. The brief 20 minutes the Los Angeles Lakers' staff limited him to by design only left him hungry for more.
"You think I like it?" Randle joked while beaming into the cameras after being asked about the tight grip the Lakers have on his playing time. "I want to go out there and I want to play, but the best thing is to listen to my training staff, listen to my doctors and coaches. They know what's best for me."
Randle's excitement to finally play was evident, his joy displayed with an ear-to-ear smile while reporters gathered around him. A glance over of his box score -- 11 points on three-of-nine shooting, one rebound and four turnovers -- doesn't tell the story of Julius' first competitive basketball game since his leg snapped. A six second clip of the thunderous dunk he put down after blowing by Adreian Payne doesn't, either.
There were glimpses of the Julius Randle that emerged by the end of preseason last year, playing up to an electrified crowd in Las Vegas. His footwork and agility are still very much intact, giving him the tools he needs to plow to the rim like an SUV without brakes. Randle's jumper didn't fall, and layups didn't sail through the net often enough, but the display of skill and strength he put on were a reminder that he's still such an intriguing talent.
Julius, along with the other young players on the Lakers' Summer League roster, still has plenty of proving to do. Randle went into last season as the most promising prospect in Los Angeles, but over the months he spent rehabilitating Jordan Clarkson locked up first team All-Rookie honors, and D'Angelo Russell made his way to Hollywood. Summer League won't make or break Julius' promising career, but it's his best opportunity to do what he wants to do most before the NBA goes into it's deep slumber: Play basketball.
"Obviously, me being out for so long, I was anxious," Randle said of his mixed-results return. Even if the points were piling up, he looked prepared for this moment. He's leaner than ever and so strong his teammates may be out of animal comparison to make about him just one week into Summer League training camp. That Julius has dropped significant weight after being sidelined for the year is a testament to his focus on making up for lost time. "Julius has been working all summer. He's been in the weight room, he's been on the court, he's been putting in all the work," Lakers Summer League coach Mark Madsen said when asked about what he saw from Randle. "For a first game back he did a lot of positive things."
Julius will have time to do even more of those "positive things" he showed, but it will be a paced process, which is ultimately for the best. Let someone like Randle -- who wants to make the most of his much-improved conditioning now that he's able to hit the hardwood again -- have his way and he'd be happy to burn through all 40 minutes of a Summer League exhibition contest just to crash and dash his way into the paint.
Julius' first game back was just that: A first game back. He'll have a second game back, third game back, fourth game back, and so on. We'll know Randle is ready when we stop counting how many times he's played basketball since his fateful season opener, and start crossing off days until the minutes start counting for the bruising bulldozer.