Julius Randle gave up the ball, then took a bounce pass from Luol Deng as he rolled toward the basket. He paused in the paint for just as long as it took for him to jump above Nuggets center Mason Plumlee and deliver a thunderous dunk over the near seven-footer.
It was a rare highlight Wednesday in Ontario on a night when not much went right for the Lakers. And it came from a player needing to make an impact. Randle is entering the final year of his rookie contract and said he wants to stay in Los Angeles. He worked this offseason to do everything the Lakers asked him to do and more.
Now, Randle sets out on this difficult task — to solidify who he is as a player and highlight his strengths.
“I don’t have to shoot 20 jumpers a game, my bread and butter is getting to the basket, be physical but taking it when it is there,” Randle said.
Randle’s evolution during his time as a Laker has taken many forms. He was the first of four consecutive Lakers lottery picks, taken seventh overall out of Kentucky in 2014 after a season during which some thought he might be taken as high as first overall. Randle broke his leg during the first game of his NBA career, making the 2015-16 season his true rookie season.
That year, the Lakers went 17-65, with the worst record in franchise history. During it, under then-head coach Byron Scott, the Lakers worked to improve Randle’s outside shot. He made only 22.7% of his shots from 10 to 16 feet from the basket, only 25.4% of his two-pointers that were farther than 16 feet from the basket and shot 27.8% from three-point range, according to basketball-reference.com.
During the summer of 2016, Randle hired a shooting coach in the hopes that would help, but his numbers didn’t change much. There were times last season, too, when the Lakers saw his energy ebb and flow. They saw the potential for a great player — sometimes.
So when the offseason hit, they asked of Randle the same thing they asked of so many other players. Come back in shape. Cut your body fat.
Randle set to work with the help of his now wife, Kendra Randle, whom he married in August and prepared four meals a day for him. And with the help of a man named Amoila Cesar, who identifies himself on social media as a transformation specialist.
“I sought out somebody I wanted to, who I thought could help me,” Randle said. “I just took it upon myself. He was everything for me honestly. He had my meal plans day to day, everything I was eating hour by hour along with the training. He did a great job.”
In June, Cesar posted a picture of Randle’s transformation — one that caught the attention of the Lakers’ front office.
“We’ve seen the pictures on social media,” Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka said. “I could go down the roster … and say these guys look in world-class shape already.”
The physical improvements helped in training camp. Randle said he felt freer on the court.
With his body in the proper condition, now comes the task of determining the right way to use it.
Randle has focused on improving his performance on defense, and Lakers Coach Luke Walton thought Randle made the biggest improvement of any player between the first and second games this preseason. Randle attributed that compliment to playing better defense.
He’s also working on making the best of his skills by building confidence in taking outside shots but knowing that doesn’t have to be his identity.
“I know my bread and butter too,” Randle said. “So I am not going to sit here and try to be a 10-threes-a-night guy. I don’t have to be there, but if it is there I am going to take it.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli