Since coming back from the break, Julius Randle has indisputably been the Los Angeles Lakers’ best player. In fact, he’s been their best player for a few months now and with each monster game from the 23-year-old forward, it’s becoming clear this isn’t just a hot streak. Randle is a star on the rise.
Since returning from the All-Star break, Randle is one of three players averaging at least 20 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists, per stats.nba.com. The others? Reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook and four-time league MVP LeBron James. Elite company.
Not only is he the youngest out of that group, but he is the only one shooting above 55 percent from the field during that time. He’s not just dominant, he’s efficient.
Now Randle still has a long way to go before being in the same conversation as any of those guys, but every now and then he’ll show flashes of brilliance that makes one think that maybe he’s not that away from being there, like this play from Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Here's one for Julius Randle's resume.— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) March 12, 2018
Successfully contests LeBron at the rim, runs the floor, Eurosteps, dimes up KCP for 3. pic.twitter.com/GyEHf8J7ir
If you made a list of players that could pull off that sequence, it would be a short list. If you made a list of players that could pull of that sequence under 25 years old, that list gets even smaller. Randle is on that list.
Randle went on to finish the night with a career-high 36 points on 14-of-18 shooting from the field to go along with 14 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks and a steal.
But none of this should come as a surprise to anyone. Randle put the work in this summer to get to where he is at now.
After Magic Johnson challenged the Lakers to get into “the best physical shape of their lives” last season, Randle went all in, undergoing a complete body transformation over the summer.
Randle was one of the few players on the Lakers’ roster with a double-digit body fat percentage last season (14.7 percent) and he cut that in half over the summer. The results have been even better than expected.
“I feel great,” Randle told Spectrum SportsNet in August. “My body feels like I’m in great shape, my legs, everything is coming together, so I’m excited, I’m ready to go ... [I weigh] about 240, I was 243 last time, 6 percent body fat.”
His newfound mobility has allowed him to be a more able and willing defender. He’s currently on pace to finish with a season-high defensive rating of 107, a whole five-point differential from last season.
Randle’s defense was the biggest concern around his game coming out of the draft because of his size (6’9) at the power forward position and his short standing wingspan (8’9). Now four years into his career, Randle is showing that he can be not only be a capable defender, but an elite defender.
Those Draymond Green comparisons are starting look a little less silly.
Besides their build, motor and high basketball IQ, Green and Randle also have a common factor in their early development: Luke Walton. On several occasions, Green has praised Walton for his role in his breaking out with the Golden State Warriors.
“He understood what I was trying to do before I really knew what I was trying to do,” Green told Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. “He helped me out a lot. It was someone I could always talk to about anything. Luke would be the guy who, if something’s not going right, you just go vent to.”
“Coach really cares about me as a person. It’s easier to have a working relationship with someone if they care about you as a person,” Randle said. “It’s been like that since Day One, since he got the job and called me and had a conversation with me and they [with Golden State] were still in the playoffs competing for a championship. He wanted to establish that relationship from that day.
”It’s been great ever since. He came to my wedding. Sent congrats on my baby. He has seen me mature and grow as a person as well these past two years. He can be tough on me, but he is obviously a loving coach who really cares about his players.”
Randle will enter restricted free agency this summer, where he’s sure to get a handful of offers in light of his recent success. The Lakers can and should any offer made for him, barring an unlikely double max free agent scenario.
Even then, the Lakers should explore every option that would allow them to keep Randle around, starting with a package built around future picks and lower end prospects to get out of Luol Deng’s contract. Deng is owed $18 million next season, which is about what Randle is expected to sign for.
Parting with Cleveland’s 2018 first-round pick, one of their own future first-round picks and one of Thomas Bryant and Ivica Zubac is a small price to pay for a rising star entering the prime years of his career.
Randle spoke briefly about his upcoming free agency in the latest installment of The Point with Kevin Ding.
“This is the organization that drafted me, regardless, and gave me my opportunity and my shot,” Randle said. “And this is somewhere, from coming here at 19 years old and now 23, I’ve grown as a player and a person, and I want to continue to grow. If it’s here, that would be absolutely amazing.
”Free agency’s coming up, and obviously there will be decisions to make. But for me, I want to finish out the season strong and not worry about that. When the time comes, I’ll worry about that, but it has been an amazing place for me. L.A. has been amazing to me, so I have a lot of love for it.”
Randle might not be the perfect player, but he has improved every year since coming into the league and at just 23 years old, he still has a ton of room to grow. Hopefully, he sticks around to grow some more in Los Angeles.