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Lakers' Julius Randle beginning to find his 'niche' in the NBA

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- With 1:11 remaining in a one-point game and five seconds left on the shot clock, Los Angeles Lakers second-year forward Julius Randle caught a pass from Jordan Clarkson on the left wing and sized up his defender, Minnesota Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

Randle drove middle and then spun back baseline, where Towns met him with his imposing 9-foot-5 standing reach. Randle picked up his dribble, pivoted into the paint to look for a teammate to pass to, and then spun back around and flung up an off-balanced left-handed hook shot.

The ball clanged on the right lip of the rim, bounced backwards and hit the rim again, then kissed the backboard and fell in. The Lakers extended their lead to three points at 111-108 and then ultimately prevailed, 119-115, over the Timberwolves on Tuesday night.

Randle finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, his 19th double-double of the season and sixth since moving into the starting lineup against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 17 because of a right knee injury to incumbent starter Larry Nance Jr.

Count Lakers coach Byron Scott among those impressed with Randle's improvement this season.

"I think his progression has come along nicely," Scott said Wednesday. "We had a good little talk yesterday about some of the things that I want him to continue to get better at. He takes those things to heart. He's trying to put them into play. Last night after the game we talked again and I told him the things we talked about that morning he was able to do [in the game] tonight and you see the results."

Kobe Bryant's 38-point performance garnered the headlines, but Randle's dirty work inside ensured Bryant's throwback performance wasn't for naught.

Randle collected the Lakers' only three rebounds over the final 4:37, each coming in an impressive manner.

On one, he fended off three Timberwolves players -- Gorgui Dieng, Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins -- to wrestle away a vital defensive rebound. On another, he tapped a bad Bryant miss away from Towns and grabbed an offensive rebound, only for the shot clock to expire. And then on his final rebound -- arguably the most important -- he contested a Zach LaVine drive, deterring the shot, and then managed to turn around and secure the ball.

Rebounding is Randle's undisputed forte at this point. He's 12th in the league with 9.7 per game, and 19th in double-doubles. It seemed as if he kicked his energy level into another gear late against the Timberwolves, but Scott says Randle's effort was relentless throughout the game -- a trend since Randle re-entered the starting lineup almost three weeks ago.

"I saw that the whole game," Scott said. "I really thought he played that way the whole game. I think it's more obvious in the fourth quarter with three or four minutes to go when he gets rebounds like that. It seems to stand out a little bit more. But I thought he was doing that the whole game."

It'd be a stretch to suggest the Lakers' odds of winning simply hinges on Randle's effort, but he rebounds the ball considerably better in wins (11.4 per game compared to 9.3 in losses) and takes up a larger portion of the team's overall boards (45.1 percent in wins compared to 38.5 percent in losses).

That might be more indicative of the team's effort in and of itself, but Randle knows that he can swing things in L.A.'s favor if he's doing his job.

"You just have to have your niche, whatever it may be," Randle told reporters following Tuesday's win. "Just play hard regardless, and that's what I try to do. I know there are certain things the team needs me to do on a nightly basis for us to have a chance, and that's what I try to do."

The next step in Randle's development will be expanding his range and improving his accuracy. As an undersized power forward who can't protect the rim, Randle will need to develop a reliable jump shot, possibly out to 3-point range, to keep himself on the floor and maximize his potential.

Randle is still raw on the offensive end, with most of his baskets coming via the creation of his teammates off offensive rebounds or through brute strength and effort around the rim. He's only shooting 41.5 percent on the season -- low for a big man, even as a rookie -- and is far below average on shots from 10 feet and beyond (23.5 percent), according to NBA.com/stats.

With the ball in his hands in a close game, though, he was able to muster up a clutch bucket, no matter how unsightly it was.

"In those moments I have more confidence in myself than ever, and I just felt like we needed to make a basket," Randle said.

If Randle can continue to prove that he's a threat to score out of the post or on pop-outs, and not just off offensive rebounds or dives to the rim, the Lakers' offense, which ranks just 29th in offensive efficiency, can add a much-needed wrinkle to its limited arsenal.