John Clay

John Clay: Randle's injury a reminder why players deserve freedom to turn pro

Lakers forward Julius Randle winced in pain as the Lakers trainer checked his injury in the fourth period Tuesday Oct. 28, 2014.
Lakers forward Julius Randle winced in pain as the Lakers trainer checked his injury in the fourth period Tuesday Oct. 28, 2014. AP Photo/The Orange County Register,

What we woke up to Wednesday morning was terrible, awful, disappointing, brutal news, but what we also woke up to was further proof.

Julius Randle broke his leg. The former Kentucky forward broke the tibia in his right leg during his first regular-season game on the first night of the regular season. Randle underwent surgery Wednesday. The Lakers say his rookie season is over.

It's a cruel blow for a good kid who was expected to be a prominent piece for the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers. If you thought Kobe Bryant and company were headed toward the lower rung of league mediocrity, now one of the sport's most successful franchises appears destined for doom.

Let's switch gears, however, and consider a hypothetical. Suppose Randle had returned to Kentucky for his sophomore season. Suppose he decided he needed another campaign under John Calipari to polish his game, to chase after a title, to strengthen his draft stock. Suppose that on the first night of the regular season, in the waning moments of a game in Rupp Arena, Randle had fractured the tibia in his right leg.

Such a stroke of bad luck would open a Pandora's box of uneasy questions. Can Randle recover? Will he return as the same player he was before the injury? What sort of effect will the injury have on his developmental timetable? Was this a fluky misstep or a harbinger of the bad luck associated with an injury-prone player?

To be sure, Randle will face those same questions in 2015-16, but he will do so with a check in the bank. It's a $5.8 million check over two seasons, with an option for two more at even better money.

Had Randle returned to UK and — let's just say for the sake of argument — accepted a modest check for signing his very own autograph, he would be Todd Gurley.

Maybe in a perfect world, all student-athletes would stay in school for four years and not play professional sports until after graduating with a degree, or giving that a legitimate try. Maybe.

There's a perfect world and then there's bottom-line reality, however. Circumstances change. Luck, good and bad, intervenes.

In a perfect world, college athletics' mega millions wouldn't be made entirely off the backs of voiceless players, either.

Projecting a basketball future is an inexact science. "He needs another year" is the blanket phrase of the pre-draft analysis. And yet one size doesn't fit all.

Terrence Jones returned to Kentucky for his sophomore season and benefited greatly. He won a championship ring. He was drafted in the first round. He's now a starter for the Houston Rockets.

Doron Lamb returned to UK for a sophomore year, along with Jones. Lamb was the 42nd overall pick in the NBA Draft. Two professional seasons later, he is without a team.

Anthony Davis was on that same Kentucky championship team in 2012. Davis was a freshman, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. Rather than become a sophomore, Davis entered the NBA Draft and was taken first overall by the now-New Orleans Pelicans; two years later, there is not a better young player in professional basketball.

Randle can still be an NBA star. The process is merely delayed. Early reports say the Dallas native should make a full recovery. It will just take time, effort and rehab.

In the meantime, the next time you hear someone complaining about the one-and-done, think not of the injured Julius Randle being carried out of the Staples Center on a stretcher, think of the Julius Randle who, on the occasion of his news conference announcing his decision to turn pro, was asked what he planned to do with his first NBA paycheck.

Randle said he was going to do something for his mom. He said she was the one who had sacrificed to help him. Now, he wanted to help her.

The fact that he could tell us was all we need to know about the reality of the one-and-done.