Lakers’ Julius Randle is a force when he’s focused

For the first two games of the Lakers’ season, Julius Randle looked disengaged. He wasn’t starting, like he had most of last season, and his minutes were limited. After all the work he put in this offseason, frustration crept in and seemed to get the best of him.

Then Randle took control of the narrative and found a way to make the best of it.

“It’s just the frustration of just trying to figure out what you gotta do to be out there helping,” Randle told The Times. “Obviously every player they feel like they give their team the best chance to win. That’s all it was. Just wanting to be out there and help us win games.”

After sub-par performances in the Lakers’ first two games, Randle produced three straight games of double-digit scoring while playing between 18 and 25 minutes in each of those games. He shot 76% during that span, taking on backup center responsibilities at times. Randle came back down to earth on Saturday facing a team with a very talented big man in Rudy Gobert, but overall Randle has given the Lakers more than he did at first.

“When Julius’s head’s on, he’s hard to stop,” Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball said. “At his size, the way he moves, he’s very difficult to guard. He plays defense as well. … It starts before the game. You can tell when he’s focused. When he’s focused he can come out there and give us positive minutes.”

Randle tackled his offseason with a passion that showed in its results.

His body changed, he became explosive, he came into training camp believing he’d done just what he needed to do to show the Lakers he was a big part of their present and future.

The reality Randle faced next didn’t seem to match. The Lakers did not offer him a contract extension as they continued to preserve salary cap space for what they hope will be a big free agent haul next summer. And through training camp, Randle quickly realized that he would no longer be a starter for the Lakers.

Slowly, he came to accept that.

“I don’t have a choice,” Randle said. “That’s what coach feels is best for the team so I had to be ready when my number was called.”

Having made that decision he changed his play, and Lakers coach Luke Walton noticed. He liked Randle’s energy level and his awareness. He liked that Randle started attacking the rim to keep defenses from clogging the paint.

“We need people to dive, roll to the rim to penetrate the defense, to collapse the defense, so there are other things available, and he’s been really dang good at doing it,” Walton said. “When he turns himself into that dynamic roller with all that work he put in this offseason as far as changing his body and how explosive he is now, just really hard to deal with.”

Ball settling into defense

For two games in a row, Lonzo Ball has pointed a finger at himself to explain what has gone wrong for the Lakers. On Saturday night, he took responsibility for the two electrifying plays by Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell that changed momentum in the game. On Friday, he apologized for not getting back to defend the point guard in transition.

But his coach has had a more forgiving interpretation of how Ball has done on defense.

“You are trying to guard for the most part grown men, and he’s hitting centers that are rolling down that are 6-11 and 280 pounds and he is in there mixing it up on the glass,” Walton said. “The speed and physicality normally takes longer for young guys to adjust, and he seems to be really into that part of the game and battling. A lot of times with high draft picks they aren’t as concerned with defense, and he’s bought into it and been a big part of why we have made good steps on that court.”

Low splash zone

Their style of play might be derivative of how the Golden State Warriors play, but the Lakers don’t have the kind of shooters necessary to join the NBA’s three-point party.

“I know the modern NBA is everyone shoots 40 threes a game, but that’s not what we’re trying to do,” Walton said. “If we’re open and it’s a rhythm pass and we’ve got some ball movement side to side, inside out. Love it. You catch it in rhythm, let it fly. But we don’t want to just come down and jack up threes all game. That’s not our strength.”

It certainly hasn’t been lately. In only one of the Lakers’ six games this season have they made more than one third of their three-pointers.

The Lakers are amid a particularly dry spell from three. Against the Wizards last Wednesday, they made only seven of 30 three-point attempts. Against Toronto they made three of 23. Most recently, against Utah, they made five of 22 attempts.

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