In his own way, Julius Randle is as much a unicorn as a player as Kristaps Porzingis. Finally given the opportunity to start, Randle and his bully ball style of play have become the heart and soul of this young Lakers team.
In fact, you can make a valid argument that Julius Randle is not only the Lakers’ best player right now but also their MVP. Since taking over as the starting power forward, Julius has averaged 17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.3 assists on 56.9% shooting in 28.4 minutes per game, leading the team in points and rebounds per game and ranking 5th in assists. More importantly, the Lakers won 14 of the 26 games since Julius joined the starting lineup.
It seems like the Lakers have been trying to trade Julius Randle forever but for some reason or another they never seem to be able to consummate a deal. In the meantime, Randle continues his remarkable journey to transform himself from an enigma who can’t shoot to a unicorn that can’t be guarded. It’s a win-win situation for the Lakers as the better Julius plays, the stronger and deeper their pool of young talent and options this summer become.
Having survived the trade deadline, Randle will still need to continue his dominant play the rest of this season to convince the Lakers to prioritize cap space to keep him whether or not they sign two max-contract free agents. Randle’s elite play in the first two games after the All-Star break is a strong sign he is going to continue to pressure and show the Lakers’ front office he’s as important and valuable to their future as any of the players on the team.
Still only 23, Randle is still trying to catch up and make up for the rookie year he lost to injury after playing just minutes. Who knows where he would have been this year had he not lost that first year. One thing for sure, however, is we’re seeing a much more mature and under control version of Julius Randle. While he’ll still carelessly dribble into a crowd or bowl over someone for an offensive foul, the bull in the china shop has now become a deadly weapon.
When you look at the great young talent around the league, there really is nobody else like Julius Randle. In his own way, he is a unicorn. There is no other player his size with his freakish combination of elite speed, quickness, handle, and aggressiveness that makes him a nightmare and physical danger to defend. Julius spent last summer transforming his body and has finally learned how to harness his great ferocity to become virtually unguardable.
There’s been a lot of recent discussion in the media and blogs about what the Lakers would do if they succeeded in signing two max-contract free agents. Would they then look to trade one or two of their talented young stars-to-be to acquire a third superstar like Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard? Or would they instead be patient and keep the young players and let them grow and develop into the additional stars they’ll need to win an NBA championship?
One of the huge benefits of the Clarkson and Nance, Jr. trade that has gone unnoticed is that the Lakers not only cleared enough cap space to sign two max-contract free agents but also enough cap space to re-sign Julius Randle. There’s no doubt Randle wants badly to stay with the Lakers and the Lakers know how unique and in many ways irreplaceable Randle is to this team. That’s why they didn’t trade him midseason and why they’ll re-sign him.
Right now, the Lakers will be able to generate $75 million in cap space this summer by waiving Deng and renouncing all their free agents but Randle. That means they could sign Paul George for $30 million, set aside another $30 million for Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thomson summer of 2019, and still re-sign Julius Randle for a 3 or 4-year deal starting at $15 million per year. The Mavs might offer more but I think that would be enough to keep Julius.
With cap space projected to be at a premium this summer, the Lakers could use the $30 million being saved for summer 2019 to fill out the roster with 1-year short term contracts like they did this year with Lopez and KCP. The two players I would like to see the Lakers sign to short term contracts would be Isaiah Thomas and Nerlens Noel. Both are facing difficult situations and could likely benefit from accepting 1-year deals to reestablish their value.
A starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and Nerlens Noel with a bench of Isaiah Thomas, Josh Hart, Draft Pick, Kyle Kuzma, and Ivica Zubac could be formidable at both ends of the court. With the re-signing of Randle and Thomas and addition of George and Noel, the Lakers would have a good chance of moving into the top four teams in the Western Conference and positioning themselves perfectly for summer 2019.
Of course, the NBA is still a business and no player can assume he is never going to be traded. While I think they finally see Julius Randle as an integral part of their young core, the Lakers by their nature will always be looking for superstars and ways to upgrade their roster. Chances are their next superstar after Paul George will come via trade rather than free agency and the Lakers’ front office has done a terrific job building a portfolio of tradable assets.
For now, however, Julius Randle has a chance to take the reins as the Lakers’ power forward of the future. He still needs to work on his free throws and outside shooting but I think that will come more easily once he has security. He also has the kind of set-shot 3-point shot that can become very efficient. He doesn’t have to shoot 40% but needs to shoot 33% ala Draymond Green. That’s what Julius needs to elevate his game and become a true superstar.
Julius Randle’s ferocity and competitiveness is as important to the psyche and chemistry of the Lakers as Draymond Green’s fire and drive is to the Warriors. He may not be the big name or the closer but he has a chance to become the Lakers’ next Robert Horry, Michael Cooper, or Lamar Odom. And like those great Lakers, Julius and his bully ball style of play will become the heart and soul and an enduring trademark of the Lakers’ next NBA championship team.
Julius Randle will become the enigma that transforms into a Lakers unicorn.