Competition is healthy, the saying goes.
For Julius Randle, competition has not been a friend of late. Larry Nance Jr. now holds the starting spot Randle has all but demanded for the duration of his young career, while rookie Kyle Kuzma has assumed a far greater role than would have been projected before the former Utah Ute's NBA Summer League exploits.
After getting pulled out of the game in the season opener and getting an ear full from Lakers coach Luke Walton for not being ready to play, Randle's role plunged to only 13 minutes in the Lakers' win in Phoenix. Trade value talk dominated the social media wires, which is expected regardless of how Randle plays since the power forward is in a contract year, and the Lakers have publicly stated their desire to attract top level free agents.
Against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, though, Randle reverted back to a positive member of the team, despite facing the absurd challenge of guarding All-Star big men DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. While those matchup issues played a central role in LA falling behind by 22 points in the first half, Randle's attitude and energy sustained as he played as the center in the small unit that swung the game back and gave the Lakers the lead down the stretch.
"I thought it was his best game so far," Walton stated the obvious about Randle's Sunday night at Staples Center.
Walton added, "I think he's been a little frustrated that he wasn't starting, and tonight his energy levels just seemed right."
As a coach, Walton is far from aloof and listed the realities that Randle was facing in terms of a contract year, having started essentially his entire life, still being young, and the suddenness of being placed on the bench and unsure of playing time. In those first two games of the regular season and at the tail end of the preseason, Randle looked like a shrinking giant in terms of body language.
On Sunday, Randle often failed because Davis and Cousins are often unstoppable, but the forward's overall energy, attitude and effort were undeniably improved from the first two games of the season. The strong, 6-foot 9-inch ball of muscle said that he focused on having a positive attitude after what has publicly been a tough start to the season for the 22-year-old former Kentucky Wildcat.
"With everything going on, you just try to put yourself in the best position to give your team the best chance to win, so for me, it goes more than just my play," Randle said immediately after Sunday's game. "It's my attitude, along with my effort and how I make other people feel."
Randle's positive attitude builds on itself, as his improved energy increases his value and pushes up his minutes, thus creating less of an emotional burden to keep the forward's spirits down. Randle may not be immediately pushed back into a starting role any time in the near future, but the Dallas native has evidence that he will be trusted with meaningful minutes after playing the entire fourth quarter against the Pelicans.
Randle acknowledged that, to him, finishing games meant more than starting them, and so, perhaps, this particular flash point about Randle's frustrations with not starting may finally die down for a bit.