The most important takeaway from the Los Angeles Lakers' Summer League play is that Julius Randle looked like the same talented player the team introduced just over a year ago in Las Vegas, and that's a huge win for everyone involved. Randle looked leaner and stronger than ever, had no issues with his conditioning this time around, and never let any fear creep into his mind while he was on the floor. Julius was finally playing basketball again.
"I feel great. I feel better right now than I do after a practice, honestly. I want to keep playing," Randle said after his first game back. His game against the Minnesota Timberwolves played out much like the rest of his return; Julius getting to the spots he wants by taking his man off the dribble, and the shot not falling nearly as much as he'd hope. Looking beyond just the results and appreciating the process and progress we saw, however, makes his exhibition outing a major success.
The same player that was heralded as the first ray of hope last summer was bulldozing his way into the paint as strong and quick as ever. Here's a look at Randle getting to the rim throughout Summer League:
Julius' scoring possessions often start with him receiving the ball around the three-point line. It's going to be interesting to see how that develops, as he lacks the outside shot to make him a threat but can also use any space he's given to build up momentum when he drives. Covering him too tight leaves a defender prone to losing him on a drive, but too much space and the hope is Julius develops into the kind of player who can take advantage of that mistake.
The key for Randle's offense may be his ability to develop a consistent mid-range jumper. He's been working on his perimeter game all season and knows he'll need that tool in his skillset to make the most of his talent. Coincidentally, one of the most standout plays he made was a swift and lethal stepback jumper.
Here's a look at a few of the jumpers Julius made, including the aforementioned dart of a stepback:
These are the same kinds of things he showed last year through Summer League and preseason, and he looks even better prepared physically. The only sign of Randle's injury bothering him was the fact he was held to limited minutes. The goal remains the start of the season for the Lakers, and Julius has an entire summer to continue working on his craft while working on his physical fitness.
He's back to making forward progress in his career, and that's important for a player who had to work hard just to get back to square one. Some never do, though. Look no further than Joel Embiid as a player who's yet to play a game since being drafted and suffered a setback on the same foot injury. Randle made it back to where he was before and looks ready to take the next step with a new season.
Progress and time is needed for every young player. For all of the successful drives to the basket from Julius, there were wild off-balance shots, early shotclock mid-range jumpers without any ball movement and struggles finishing in traffic. Randle's re-introduction to competitive basketball play was long-awaited, but it also shows how long he has to go before he really gets into his flow again.
Randle forcing the issue on drives, as well as putting up mid-range jumpers out of isolations, were the two standout negatives watching him play. These are areas he's still feeling out as a young player, especially after missing months of play, but it'll be tendencies like these that are worth keeping an eye on as he develops. His decision making on drives is particularly important, especially since he's able to get where he wants so easily. What he does from there is the what can seperate him as an elite playmaking big. Here's a look at these shot selection issues:
It's always worth noting it's Summer League and the Lakers' offense wasn't exactly a well-oiled machine, so take it for what it is over such a small sample size.
Even though the Lakers' offense was never in sync, Randle talked about trying to get his teammates involved after every game. Julius' versatility with the ball in his hands comes from his ability to drive or kick, and he certainly showed he's a great passer when he's looking to move the ball. The fact the Lakers' roster was struggling to finish anything didn't help his assist tally or flow of the game, but he made a few nice reads and was one of the few players on the team trying to create for his teammates:
Julius Randle has plenty of work to do on his game. His jumper is shaky, drives are still a bit out of control and he's barely had a chance to play a handful of exhibition games the last two summers. The fact that he's on the floor, looking more than 100 percent, is the most important takeaway of his return to the hardwood.
The young core has developing to do, together, and Randle looks ready to be a part of that. That's enough to label Summer League a successful step into the future for the Lakers.