In many ways, Julius Randle launched the Los Angeles Lakers' rebuild.
Randle was the team's first lottery pick since Andrew Bynum in 2005. Before that, LA had not picked in the top 14 of the NBA Draft since Jerry West plucked out Eddie Jones with the no. 10 pick in the 1994 NBA Draft.
Since Randle arrived in 2014, the Lakers have drafted in the lottery for three straight years as the team struggles to gain solid footing and sits in a three-way tie for last place in the Western Conference 40 games into the 2017-18 NBA season.
D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball have been the Lakers' three lottery picks since Randle, with Russell packaged up and traded to Brooklyn over the summer to make space for Ball. Undoubtedly, the poisonous Timofey Mozgov contract helped Russell pack his bags.
Randle is due to be a restricted free agent over the upcoming summer, and his long-term future with the team is confusing, at best. Given the front office's public declaration that the Lakers will look to attact two marquee free agents, re-signing Randle is not a priority. Trade rumors are as much a part of the 23-year-old's life as double-doubles on the court. Randle is averaging 17.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as a starter.
However, Lakers coach Luke Walton took 33 games before he finally thrust the 6-foot 9-inch, 250-pound versatile big man into the Lakers starting lineup, though that was where most outsiders expected the forward to begin the season. Instead, Walton utilized Randle's energy and athleticism as the anchor of the second unit and a late game small ball center.
While the role was far from inconsequential, Randle often seemed frustrated with his minutes. Often, Randle would argue with his coach late in games when being pulled out or visibly sulk on the bench when Walton went with other alternatives like standout rookie Kyle Kuzma, veteran center Brook Lopez or defensive-minded Larry Nance Jr.
When on the court, though, Randle continued to play hard and made the most of his 22.0 minutes per game in the reserve role. Averaging 12.5 points, 6.3 assists and 1.8 assists on 55 percent shooting from the field, Randle had a habit of taking over games and carrying the Lakers' bench to head-turning heights. At one stage, the Lakers led the NBA in bench scoring, with Randle playing a major role in that unit.
A couple of times, Walton seemingly dropped Randle's minutes drastically to send a message. In Houston on Dec. 20, Randle only played eight minutes. One week later, Walton only called on Randle for 11 minutes. The coach would eventually explain that the random drops in minutes had to do with the player's play and a standard the coach expected, i.e. there was nothing random about the minute fluctuations.
Fans watching at home raged at Randle's inconsistent minutes and called Walton a hypocrite for not taking the same stance with other players. In stride, the coach openly admitted that he holds this particular player to a different standard because of how "great" he can be.
In the 34th game of the season, Walton finally rewarded Randle with his first start of the season. However, Lopez was out injured, so the power forward would need to start at center against the 7-foot moster that is LA Clippers center DeAndre Jordan.
Randle collected 18 points, seven rebounds and two assists in the defeat and actually managed to hold his own against Jordan. Conspiracy theorist could argue that Walton set Randle up for failure in that game with the hopes that he would return to the bench after the experiment failed.
In the next game, Randle scored 29 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and six assists against Houston, as he again played center with Lopez still sidelined. On that occasion, Randle simply attacked the Houston Rockets and could not be stopped. In those first four starts at center, Randle scored 17.8 points, grabbed 9.8 rebounds, handed off 2.5 assists and shot 59 percent from the field. Defensively, however, the Lakers looked like a complete mess and lost all four games because rim protection was almost non-existent. Three of those first four starts were ugly, non-competitive affairs.
The defense was also hurt by the fact that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could not travel outside of California with the team, Lopez was still recovering from a sprained ankle and rookie Lonzo Ball was out with a shoulder injury. Assembling a new starting lineup with the majority of the pieces not available is a tough task to accomplish.
When Lopez and Ball both finally returned to the starting lineup on the same day, Walton stuck with Randle and finally moved the former University of Kentucky Wildcat to his natural power forward position. The first game with the new unit was far from smooth. Randle collected a double-double, but the team failed to show the right spark in that first trial run. That would be the team's ninth straight loss, with the injury pile-up and an unholy schedule to end 2017 playing their parts in the losing streak.
Against Atlanta on Sunday, the second attempt at the same starting lineup displayed improvement. Randle only played 23 minutes and grabbed 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists in the win over the Hawks. Randle would have likely played more minutes if the Lakers had not held a comfortable lead late in the game.
On Tuesday, finally, Randle, Lopez and Ball all looked settled, as the Lakers beat the Sacramento Kings comfortably. In 30 minutes, no. 30 scored 22 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and handed off six assists in a near triple-double performance.
Again, the Lakers won.
One reason why Randle and Lopez work so well together is that the starting center enjoys hanging out by the three-point line and shooting from distance. Against Sacramento, Lopez hit five of his eight three-point attempts. The two players complement each other, as Randle's outside shot is not his strong suit. So, the center vacating the painted area allows the bruising power forward more of an opportunity to drive into the lane and charge the basket with his unique combination of strength and speed.
With Nance and Kuzma on the second unit, the spacing is reversed with Nance playing as the center working under the basket and Kuzma on the perimeter shooting three-pointers.
When the game heads down the stretch, Walton will likely continue to push Randle into the center role in a smaller lineup, but the Lakers' ability to play with Lopez and Randle leading the front line appears to be a combination that is here to stay.
With Randle in the starting lineup, the Lakers may no longer be vying for the title of best bench in the NBA, but the potential improvement to the starting lineup appears to offer a far greater reward than the alternative. In any case, Walton already tried the alternative approach for 33 games, and the Lakers lost 22 of those games.
In Tuesday's win over Sacramento, Randle and the Lakers' starters outscored their Kings' counterparts 76-43. Meanwhile, the Kings' second unit outscored the Lakers' reserves 43-23. Randle's 22 points moving from the bench to the starting lineup help explain those differences.
While Randle's future with the franchise may not be guaranteed, as long as he's with the Lakers, Randle should continue to start--at least for the remainder of the season. On Thursday, Randle and the Lakers look for their third straight scalp when the San Antonio Spurs come to town.