When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Julius Randle with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, he was presumed to be their starting power forward of the future.
Randle starred in his one-and-done season at the University of Kentucky in the 2013-2014 season, posting 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds in 30.8 minutes over 40 contests on an absolutely stacked team. With a bulky 6’9” frame and a tenacious ability to score around the rim and rebound the ball at will, his skill set seemed to indicate that he’d be a productive NBA starter for a number of years.
But tragically, in his rookie debut, he suffered a torn ACL and missed the entire 2014-2015 season.
The following season (his true rookie campaign), he performed well, averaging a double-double with 11.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in 28.2 minutes over 81 games. He started 60 of those contests and showed off what he could do in Kobe Bryant’s final season. Most of all, he missed just one game, proving that his knee injury was a thing of the past.
The next season (2016-2017), he made an improvement in the scoring column, posting 13.2 points per game, but saw his rebounding numbers slightly decline, at 8.6. He played 28.8 minutes per contest and started 73 of the 74 games he appeared in. While it would have been nice to see an improvement across the board, Randle was still an unquestioned starter on the rebuilding club.
However, head coach Luke Walton made a decision before this season started: he was going to bring Randle off the bench and instead start Larry Nance Jr. and newcomer Brook Lopez in the frontcourt, thus sending Randle to the bench.
Through seven games, Randle not only hasn’t started once, but his minutes have dipped to 19.1 per contest. However, he has made the most of his abbreviated time on the court, taking advantage of easier matchups against the second units of other teams by putting up 11.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game so far.
Since the Lakers are very deep, Walton seemingly has no issue playing Randle off the bench.
“He has been really good ever since we started playing him in that backup five role,” Walton said in his postgame press conference on Tuesday, per Daniel Starkand of Lakers Nation.
A career 46.2 percent shooter, Randle has shot 63.3 percent so far this season. While he has taken 7.0 shots per game, compared to his career average of 10.2, it appears as though he’s taking higher percentage shots, which has helped the team. It's a small sample size, but it could be a sign of good things to come.
“He has just been playing with great energy,” Walton admired. “Defensively, he is switching onto point guards and containing and staying in front. He can change games and he did that tonight with the way he came in and played with that second unit in the first half. He had a very solid night for us again and he has done that the last three out of four games, in my opinion.”
Therefore, it doesn’t seem like Randle’s role will change anytime soon.
Set to become a restricted free agent next summer, Randle’s overall value may be hurt by his new role, but if he can establish himself as one of the best reserves in the league, he will likely be able to land a lucrative long-term deal elsewhere. Or, if the Lakers value him enough, he could end up staying put if they match whatever offer he receives from another club.
Until then, he will likely continue to assert himself on the floor when Walton calls his number, even if it’s for short spurts of time.