Heading into NBA free agency, Lakers forward and restricted free agent Julius Randle is one of the summer’s biggest wild cards. With so much of the league not having cap space, it’s unclear if anyone is going to make him a huge offer, even if the Dallas Mavericks seem like the frontrunner to do so right now.
The reality for Randle is that almost all of the teams that might pursue him have bigger fish to fry. That’s what happens when you share a free agency summer with players like LeBron James, Paul George and others in a year the Lakers have the most cap space in the league.
Those players’ decisions leave Randle’s own future out of his hands for now, but as he explained to Adrian Wojnarowski on “The Woj Pod” when discussing the Lakers not offering him an extension this past fall, he’s used to other factors influencing his fate.
“I had to focus on what I could control. I couldn’t control not getting an extension and whatever happened throughout the year, coming off of the bench or whatever. I just could control what I could,” Randle said. “That’s my preparation, the work I put in, my focus, my intensity and my energy.
“I knew that I put in the work so it was just a matter of time before everything would line up, and I just feel like I’m in a better position anyway this summer than trying to work out an extension last summer, so it’s just funny how life works.”
After the best year of his young career, Randle is almost undoubtedly in “a better position” than he was going into the season. Randle posted career-highs in points (16.1) and field goal percentage (55.8 percent) while also playing the best defense he’s ever played, and will surely have more demand for his services and be valued more highly by the rest of the league now than he was last fall.
Despite on some level proving that he was worth more more than the Lakers had him pegged at in October, Randle made it sound like he won’t hold that against the team as a restricted free agent.
”I try to separate emotions from business. I know sometimes they go hand in hand, like if you spent four years in a place that drafted you,” Randle said. “But honestly I’m just so focused on my craft and continuing to get better as a player. It’s an exciting time to be a free agent, even though I’m restricted.
“I think what’s even more exciting for me is the opportunity to get better and build off of this year. So it might be an emotional time, I don’t know. I’ve never been through this process before but I try to separate both of them and really just enjoy the whole process of things.”
Still, even while he attempts to keep emotions out of a business decision, Randle admitted there would be a certain amount of sentimental appeal for him in helping a great franchise like the Lakers, and one he started his career with at that, get back to contention.
”That’d be really cool. I feel like I’ve been the start of the rebuilding process with the Lakers. I was the first lottery pick when they started getting lottery picks and all that stuff. It would be cool,” Randle said, but he’s also not going to let how “cool” that would be dictate his decision.
“For me I just can’t really sit and imagine things. You have dreams, you write your goals down and whatever it is, but for me I just keep my head in the work. I’m so caught up in the moment of where I am now and continuing to get better as a player and as a person,” Randle said.“I don’t sit around and be like ‘man I wish we were here, blah blah blah.’ I’m too busy and mentally focused on trying to get to that position.”
“I can sit around and gloat and laugh and giggle and pop champagne once [I] win a championship and get to that position, but until then I’m just too focused on carrying about the work and the process of it.”
Randle has already said that playing for a playoff team and having a chance to get to a point where he can have those types of champagne-soaked celebrations will be one of the most important factors for him in choosing his next destination, and he told Wojnarowski he thinks that a team’s “culture” is the most critical part of creating that type of winning environment.
“I feel like having the identity as a team of who you want to be is really important. You look at the teams who are in the conference finals right now. Boston has an identity and a culture. Houston, Cleveland, Golden State,” Randle said. “Those teams have a culture that makes them successful.
“I feel like the reason we had success was because we bought into how we wanted to play every night with the Lakers,” Randle continued. “I feel like if you get players to buy into that, then everybody has success because you know what you’re working for and how you fit into that.”
It’s no surprise that Randle buys into that type of culture, because doing so in a contract year — rather than playing selfishly and trying to get numbers and get paid — is what is going to be responsible for all of the teams that are going to want to recruit him this summer.
While restricted free agency is different because the Lakers can match any offer for Randle and keep him if they choose to, the prospect of getting wined and dined has Randle as excited as he was to get recruited by colleges when he was a teenager.
Even if it’s not quite the same.
”This is something that I dreamed of. All of the letters, all of the meetings, all of the visits. I get to be a part of that atmosphere, so for me, (college recruiting) was really exciting,” Randle said. “This is a lot different. It’s still the same joy and I would say the same fun and excitement. Not a lot of nervousness or worry. In my position, I’m just having fun with it.”
But Randle says he didn’t start that fun early. He said he wasn’t going to other cities during road trips and imagining living there, or picturing what he’d look like in opposing jerseys, or how he’d fit on the rosters of teams with cap space, because he felt that he needed to focus on helping the Lakers win so that he could put himself “in the best position” going into free agency.
Now he’s ready to start doing that, but he is a long way away from making his final decision.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Randle said. “This is my first time. As far as fits, I don’t know man, I don’t have any Woj bombs for you.”