What on earth is going on with Julius Randle and the Los Angeles Lakers?
The curious case is akin to an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a paucity of opportunities—a talented player whose duties keep getting shifted like a temp secretary in the steno pool, all while delivering the most efficient scoring attack in his still young career.
Add a much-improved ability to not only defend but to do so against multiple positions and this up-and-down allotment of floor time becomes all the more bamboozling.
The 23-year-old has logged as many as 31 minutes during the month of December and as few as five. On Wednesday, he put in an 11-minute shift. If you went to the concession stand (or your very own kitchen) you might have missed him.
But to hear his head coach describe the rotational landscape, there isn’t any particular problem.
“He’s been one of our better players all year long,” said Luke Walton per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. “You know I told him it’s his job to stay ready and be ready when he’s called on.”
Then again, in a separate newsletter, Ganguli said “the Lakers would love to trade him if they could.”
What makes this all the more confounding is that Randle is a legitimate difference maker on an exciting, up-tempo team whose 11-22 record doesn’t tell the whole story.
“There’s an open question as to whether Luke feels he’s getting the same player every night with Randle,” said FB&G’s Darius Soriano when queried about the situation. “This doesn’t speak to why playing him less is good for the team or the rotation. But Walton may believe the steadiness offered by players like Nance or even Bogut—even if their peaks are not nearly as high as Randle’s—can offer a certain appeal.”
But there’s also the other side of the coin, as Soriano points out:
Randle’s switch-ability on defense unlocks another level of team ability on that end of the floor which is incredibly valuable against pick and roll heavy teams. Offensively, he offers shot creation skill with the ball in his hands, can be a dynamic open court player, and is a good roll man in the half court when operating off the ball. These skills are incredibly important for what the Lakers want to do on that side of the ball and I don’t think it’s crazy to say he should get more opportunities to see if he can impact the game with extended minutes in the same way he has in limited ones.
It hasn’t exactly been the journey the one-and-done standout from Kentucky might have imagined. Then again, sports isn’t a profession known for its stability.
Randle was the 7th overall draft pick in 2014, the first time the Lakers had tapped the lottery since Andrew Bynum in 2005. But the warm glow didn’t last long—the prized prospect busted his leg 13 minutes into the season opener. He spent the rest of his rookie campaign toting a clipboard and charting matchups.
The following season saw Randle making up for lost time, starting 60 of 81 games and averaging 11.3 points and 10.2 boards. He was by no means a complete player under intransigent taskmaster Byron Scott. But the promise was certainly there—Randle was a headstrong bull in a china shop and was also putting together some impressive end-to-end romps to the hoop.
The arrival of Walton as the Lakers’ new head coach last year brought new challenges as well as continued developmental progress. Randle solidified his position as a starter and was the team’s second-leading playmaker, averaging 3.6 assists per game. He was also switching more frequently in-game from the 4 to the 5.
But nobody was really prepared for what happened next. After chiseling himself into shredded six-pack beast mode and embracing the demand to defend better, Randle found himself relegated to second-tier status. He was now primarily a backup small-ball center—a bright, shiny spot who hasn’t quite been rubbed from the roster, yet.
When Brook Lopez hobbled off the court during a tight contest against the Golden State Warriors, Randle filled in admirably, delivering 15 points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes. But the very next game—with Lopez now declared out for at least three weeks—J30 was chopped down to eight minutes.
It’s a little like watching an Intraday NASDAQ graph except it’s actually a basketball player during a contract year. The Lakers’ front office seems hell-bent on freeing up cap space and signing a superstar or two during the offseason. And perhaps Randle is simply another odd man out.
But this should also be about winning close games and making the most of the talent on hand, right here and right now. Because those pie-in-the-sky free agent dreams don’t always turn out the way you hope and a future that includes Randle could end up being a reality.
Walton may yet turn to Randle more consistently. But for now the losses and the questions are mounting. And another season may be starting to slip away.