Meet the Wildcats: Randle driven to be the best

A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Throughout the summer, will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. Our second story is on forward Julius Randle. Check out Dominique Hawkins’ profile here.

There are two sides to Julius Randle.

There’s the side of him that posts Instagram videos of him and his teammates rapping in their rooms and dancing with the Joe B. Hall Statue outside the Wildcat Coal Lodge; the side of him that took pictures for two straights hours at a Lexington fireworks show just because he wanted to please the fans; the side of him that could earn an endorsement deal from a toothpaste company for that million-dollar smile.

When you see that side of him and look past the unmistakable physical gifts he possesses, you begin to wonder how this well-spoken kid, this gentle giant, has earned the title as the most competitive player in the class of 2013, how he’s earned a reputation for being one of the most driven players the Kentucky staff has ever seen.

And then you start to talk basketball and Randle gets serious. You ask him things like why he chose Kentucky over a host of other elite schools, why he passed on a chance to play with Team USA this summer to get to campus early, and how he played with such a vengeance at his state’s 5A championship and the high school all-star games just a few weeks after he returned from injury.

It’s at that point you see the other side of Randle, the side that you’ve heard so much about on the court. It’s that side that drove him to 74 points on a still-healing foot in Texas’ final two state playoff rounds, the side that landed him near the top of the recruiting rankings and the side of him that could propel him to go No. 1 in next year’s NBA Draft.

John Calipari described Julius Randle’s drive as “off the charts.”

That side of Julius Randle doesn’t want to be good; he wants to be the best. It’s that side of him that the UK coaches have seen that makes them believe they have the best player in the country on their team.

“I’m all about getting better,” Randle says, poignantly, in an exclusive interview with “I want to reach my full potential. Whatever I have to do to get there, I’m willing to do it.”

Randle had already cemented his status as one of the top players in his class before his senior season, but he was looking forward to capping off a decorated high school career when his season was derailed by injury.

In just the second game of the season, midway through the second quarter, Randle drove baseline when he heard a snap in his foot. At first, he didn’t think much of it. He felt a knot in his foot, but there wasn’t much pain initially, so he shook it off as possible strain and tried to run it off.

It quickly became clear that the “knot” wasn’t something that was going to work its way out, so he went back to the trainer’s room and eventually visited a doctor.

“It was a feeling I had never felt before,” Randle said. “I tried to block it and make myself think there wasn’t anything bad, but I knew once I came out that game, I knew it wasn’t anything good.”

The diagnosis: a fractured right foot. The prognosis: Randle would miss most of his senior season.

Position: Forward
Date of birth: Nov. 29, 1994
Parents: Carolyn Kyles
Hometown: Dallas
High school: Prestonwood Christian Academy
Nickname: None
Twitter: @J30_Randle
Favorite TV show: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Favorite food: Italian
Favorite superhero: Superman
Favorite player: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Golf
Favorite movie: Friday trilogy
Favorite artist: Jay-Z

Randle was devastated.

“I was angry, I was upset, I cried,” Randle said. “I thought it was the end of the world.”

It only seemed that way. In reality, colleges weren’t going to be scared away from what Randle later realized was just a minor injury. John Calipari, who was in the process of recruiting Randle at the time, called to tell him everything was going to be fine.

“I heard from him as soon as I left the hospital,” Randle said. “He called me and let me know that everything was going to be OK. (He told me to) keep my head up; it’s not that big of a deal. He’s seen it many times and I would be fine. He knew the type of person I was so he knew I would be OK.”

But try telling that to a teenager who craved competition and just wanted to play with his teammates. It was difficult for him to digest.

“I didn’t get over it until I started playing,” Randle said. “It wasn’t something where I was like every day down on myself … but I wasn’t good until I was fully able to start running and playing again.”

In hindsight, the injury may have done some good for Randle in the long run. For one, it was the first time his body experienced any type of rest since he blew up on the national scene early in high school. More importantly, the time away from the game, and the disappointment of having to watch his teammates compete without him, motivated him to come back stronger than ever.

“It was a tough experience, but it matured me a lot and let me know how much I loved the game,” Randle said. “That time off was painful for me. To miss my senior season was really tough.”

When he came back, he came back like a man on a mission. Randle returned in time for a special Senior Night, and then put his high school, Prestonwood Christian Academy, which was struggling without him, on his back and led it to the state championship.

Admittedly at less than 100 percent, Randle played like his old, dominating self, combining for 74 points in the semifinals and state championship to claim the Texas 5A title. He finished with 34 points and 20 rebounds in the championship game.

Even now, Randle is a little surprised with how quickly he was able to return to form, knowing full well he may have returned earlier than he should have to capture the state crown.

“Julius is another hard-working player who is a great student and person along with being a dominator on the court. He has that will to win that the players I’ve had who have become special have all had. That motor will be important to our success next year. Julius has the skill set to be an inside-outside guy for us. He has the ability to put it on the floor and beat guys off the dribble, but he’s also got the toughness, size and ability to score against bigger defenders. At the end of the day, he’s a true leader whose personal drive is off the charts.” — Coach Cal
“Honestly, I just think it was a blessing from God,” Randle said. “He gave me the power to go out there and do that stuff. I don’t know how I did it, but it happened. It was definitely God working through me.”

Randle continued it with a dominating all-star circuit. He recorded 11 points and seven rebounds in the McDonald’s All-American Game, earned co-MVP honors in the Jordan Brand Classic with a line of 19 points and seven rebounds, and then dominated the second half of the Nike Hoops Summit as the U.S. tried to make a comeback against the World Select Team.

Randle said he didn’t feel like he had anything to prove, but he wanted to show he was still the same player who was under consideration for the top overall spot in the 2013 class before the injury.

“I didn’t feel like I was forgotten,” Randle said. “Everybody was still pretty high on me as far as players or the media or whatever, so I didn’t really care about that. My biggest thing was I had been injured. I’m coming back so let me see where my skill level is and see what I need to do to develop.”

“I feel like at that point I had done everything I needed to do in high school. I guess there’s something about me that clicks. You have so many high-level players out there, I want to be competitive. I want to see where my skill level is and see where I have to be.”

Following the all-star circuit, Randle, like several other Kentucky freshmen, passed on the chance to play with Team USA this summer to get to UK for the summer term and begin his college career. Randle said the decision was a no-brainer for him.

“When I committed here, my goal was to win a national championship,” Randle said. “That stuff can come later. I want to win a national championship. I felt like it was more important for me to be here, bonding with my team and getting team chemistry right and make sure we’re OK than be at the under-19 world championships.”

It’s that type of competitive mindset that Randle believes started the rumors that he didn’t want to play with the Harrison twins.

That gossip surfaced as Randle cut his final recruiting list to four schools, but Randle said the rumors were never true. The Texas boys had experienced their fair share of battles on the court since they first met as kids, but Randle said they have always remained close friends.

“I guess they tried to take and use the battles we’ve been having since fifth grade,” Randle said. “We’ve always been friends and we’ve always been close. … We see each other so much. Whenever we’re around each other we have fun. On the court I can see how you may get that vibe, but off the court it’s a completely different story.”

Randle reaffirmed that stance when he announced March 20 that he was joining Aaron and Andrew Harrison at UK.

“To whoever made that up, I know they feel a little dumb now,” Randle said.

When Randle committed, the headlines centered on the historic class he had just made at Kentucky, but history had nothing to do with his decision to come to Lexington. Player development and the chance to win were the main reasons the 6-foot-9 forward went with the Cats.

“Ultimately I wanted to win,” Randle said. “That was the biggest thing. I wanted to be developed. I feel like this was the place that I could be developed. I feel like the system, how Coach Cal plays … I feel like it fit me way too well.”

From the moment Coach Cal first recruited him to the frequent text messages he exchanges with him now, Randle knew Calipari was going to push him to be the best.

“I don’t need anybody to baby me,” Randle said. “I came here to be coached. I came here for somebody to push me and make me be the best player I can be. I feel like with Cal and his staff, that’s what I’m getting here. That’s why I love it so much because I know they’re not going to short-change you.”

Since arriving on campus in early June, Randle has embraced Kentucky’s demanding offseason workout plan. It’s the first time he’s lifted weights in his life – he said push-ups is how he bulked up to a college-ready 250 pounds —  but he’s earned the praise of NBA veterans like DeMarcus Cousins and Jodie Meeks, who have passed through UK’s practice facility in recent weeks.

“Julius is a beast!!” Cousins tweeted July 2.

“Saw the young fella Julius Randle putting some work in,” Meeks later said.

Randle’s motor is what drives him. It’s turned him into a powerful, punishing player in the paint, one who is capable of scoring on the low block with his back to the basket but is at his best when he faces up and takes it right at the defender. His game has gone to a new level in the last couple of years as he’s developed an ability to hit his jumper and put the ball on the floor.

Analysts will try to break down his game from now until the time he stops playing, but Randle said he doesn’t like to be defined as a certain player or at a position. What makes him special, he believes, is his ability to do a little bit of everything. Take away his inside game and he’ll make you pay with the jumper. Face guard him and he’ll blow by you. Give him the paint and he’ll dunk on you.

“I just like to be defined as a player,” Randle said. “Anywhere you put me on the court, I feel like I can be very effective. I definitely pride myself on being able to do a lot of different things, making my weaknesses my strengths, and just not being able to stop one thing.”

Above all else, he wants to be defined as a winner, even if he does show that other side, that gentle giant, from time to time.

“I just want to win,” Randle said. “I’ll do whatever I can to get better.”