Do the Lakers have a Julius Randle problem? After one game it appears they might.
Randle, the former lottery pick who, along with Jordan Clarkson, is the Lakers’ longest-tenured player, scored nine points off the bench in a 108-92 loss to the Clippers on Thursday at Staples Center. He grabbed six rebounds and blocked a shot in 18 minutes to round out a pedestrian stat line, but not an awful one.
What was first apparent, however, in Randle’s body language – a lack of energy on defense, and a general sense that he was disengaged from the Lakers – was later confirmed by Coach Luke Walton.
“Obviously, he’s a little frustrated about the starting thing,” Walton said.
When Larry Nance Jr. jumped Randle on the depth chart to start at power forward, Walton stressed it was not a referendum on Randle’s talent or an indictment of his performance in training camp.
“I’ve explained it’s not about whoever being better or playing better,” Walton said, “it’s about what units play well. And Julius was playing really well with that second unit. Larry was playing well with the first unit.”
On Thursday that didn’t seem to matter. Walton yanked Randle out of his first rotation on the floor and gave him a stern talk on the sideline.
“When he stepped on the court for whatever reason he wasn’t ready to go,” Walton said, “like he has been for the past week (of practices). So I pulled him out to tell him about it. I know he wasn’t happy with me but that’s my job.”
Randle sneaked out of the locker room while Walton addressed the media in a nearby room, continuing a recent trend of escaping after fulfilling only minimal obligations to speak to the press. In a limited interview session Thursday, Randle’s frustration was apparent.
“With a loss like this, not really getting able to contribute or affect the game, no, I’m not (happy),” Randle said.
He is disgruntled and understandably so.
Watch video below of Randle’s post-game interview (end of video) after loss to Clippers:
Lakers blown out by Clippers in Ball debut
In the past year, Randle, the No. 7 overall pick in 2014, has gotten married, become a father and gotten into the best physical condition of his career. As things should be stabilizing and coming into focus for the 22-year-old, his future with the team that drafted him has become only less certain.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka did not draft him and this week they declined to invest in him, letting Tuesday’s deadline to sign Randle to a contract extension pass without a deal.
Randle will go into next summer as a restricted free agent and, at best, a contingency plan for the Lakers if they strike out in their pursuit of elite free agents such as LeBron James and Paul George.
When Walton arrived from Golden State a year ago, he seemed the perfect ally to Randle. The new coach had been credited for much of the evolution in Draymond Green’s game with the Warriors, and he often drew comparisons between Randle and Green. In his first game under Walton, Randle came off the bench only once in 74 games.
By year 2, however, Walton’s thinking would seem to be more in line with that of former Lakers coach Byron Scott, who drew criticism for moving Randle (as well as D’Angelo Russell) out of the starting lineup 20 games into the 2015-16 season.
At the time, Scott said Randle, in his first full season after suffering a season-ending broken leg in the first game of his rookie year, needed to “grow up” and said the “way he reacts sometimes … when you take him out of games” could be attributed to “immaturity.”
Two years later, Walton is fighting the same fight.
Randle and the Lakers have been drifting apart for years, and now it’s starting to feel like they are heading for an inevitable divorce.
If Randle lets things like coming off the bench and delayed contract gratification affect his performance on the court, as it appeared he did in the season opener, he could hasten that process.