LOS ANGELES — When the last college basketball season began, he was predicted by many to be the top pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and he played like it, amassing more double-doubles than all but one other freshman in NCAA Division I history.
When last season ended, his team was playing in the national championship game, and he had led them there, piling up double-doubles in Kentucky's postseason games.
Yet Thursday night in Brooklyn, when it was time for large, powerful and passionate Julius Randle to bathe in the spotlight of achievements unmatched by his peers, he waited. And waited. And waited.
He was bypassed by two players who couldn't get their teams out of the first weekend of the tournament. He was bypassed by a chronically injured center who might not play for six months. He was bypassed by a kid guard from Australia who never played collegiately, an Oklahoma State guard who can't shoot, and an Arizona athlete who doesn't have a position.
Then, finally, he walked into the surprise embrace of the Lakers, their arms wide, their eyes big, their voices hoarse from cheering, the forgotten guy hugged tightly by the forlorn team.
Good news, Lakers fans. At long last, some very good news.
"The bottom line is, he plays and competes at a very, very high level," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said of 6-foot-9, 234-pound Randle during a post-pick news conference. "He loves contact, and, although I don't expect Kobe to talk to him until January, I think he'll like him."
Oh, yeah. Kobe. If the Lakers wanted to smooth Bryant's last laps while creating the foundation for a future without him, they couldn't have done better with the seventh overall pick. Randle is the sort of bruiser and bodyguard that Bryant hasn't had since Karl Malone. On a team that has been recently stocked with flashy jabs, he is a consistent counterpuncher. He's no Shaquille O'Neal, but he'll rumble and tumble like one.
Can Randle team with Bryant to lead them back to a championship the next two seasons? No, he's only 19. But can Randle grab enough offensive rebounds and clear enough space to allow Bryant to get the most out of his farewell tour? Yes. And can this potential younger version of Zach Randolph be the kind of player that free agents will eventually want to join for a title run after Bryant's career ends and cap space is cleared? Absolutely.
Randle has already shown a bit of the swagger necessary for someone to succeed on a Kobe Bryant-run Hollywood team. Witness one of his pre-draft quotes.
"I heard Kobe was a little tough on rookies, but I don't care," Randle said. "The city of Los Angeles expects nothing but championships. What more can I ask for?"
Moments after he was picked Thursday, the kid ducked his head and kept charging.
"I think I should've went higher, for sure but, you know, the teams that passed on me will regret it," he told ESPN's Jay Williams.
Later in the interview, Williams saved Randle from himself when he reminded him to acknowledge Bryant while he was listing his favorite things about the franchise.
Said Randle: "L.A. is the perfect spot for me, I get to go play in a great city, a great franchise that expects nothing but championships, great market, great organization. ...
Interrupted Williams: "And Kobe Bryant?"
Said Randle: "And Kobe Bryant, my idol growing up."
One reason Randle might have fallen in the draft is that there are reports he may need surgery to rearrange a pin that was incorrectly placed in his foot when he broke it while playing for his Dallas-area high school. But it didn't stop him from leading Kentucky to within a few missed free throws of winning the national championship game against Connecticut this spring, and Kupchak said he has no long-term concerns.
"We felt that his talent was such that even if he did have to miss a period of time with that kind of injury — it could be six months if necessary — it would not impact his career," Kupchak said. "At his age, even if he does reinjure it, there's no reason he can't play 12 to 14 more years at a very, very high level."
Another reason he might have fallen is that he simply got lost in the midst of all the other talent at Kentucky. But even amid those game-winning shots hit by one of those Harrison kids, Randle was still the Wildcat leader. He's not flashy, as about 85 percent of his shots were in the paint. He's not a court-wide threat, as he did not make a jumper after a February game against Florida. But unlike Thursday's top twosome of Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, he was able to elevate his team in crunch time. He is a winner, and his new team knows all about drafting winners. The last time the Lakers had a draft pick as high as No. 7, they made James Worthy their top pick in 1982, just months after he led North Carolina to a national championship.
"That was the organization I wanted to go to, it couldn't be a better situation for me," Randle told Los Angeles reporters in a Thursday night conference call. "They didn't think I'd be available at seven. ... When I got there (for a pre-draft workout), man, it felt like home."
The Lakers must still travel many miles before returning to the NBA championship-level stage they consider their home. They don't have the cap space or roster attractiveness to draw any big free agents for at least another year, so you can forget any of this LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony talk. Their expected naming of old-school Byron Scott as their new coach feels safe, but will it inspire?
It's a long road back. But Thursday felt like a decent start. On the day Julius Randle fell, the Lakers may have finally, slightly, begun their rise.