Zach Randolph strolled onto the Kings practice court Monday for his first training camp appearance with his new team, yet even after 16 years on the job, some things never grow old. A familiar white headband was tucked above his ears. A wide, engaging smile stretched across his round features. He locked eyes with everyone who asked a question during the media availability session, even those he would have preferred to ignore.
Apart from the size of the gathering – he was a little surprised, mentioning that it eclipsed his experiences in Memphis – Randolph knew what was coming and responded with the blunt force of one of his low-post elbows.
The August incident in Nickerson Gardens? The arrest for possession of marijuana with intent to sell and resisting arrest? The fact the marijuana charge was ultimately dropped and he was sentenced to 150 hours of community service for his involvement in the late-night incident?
“I’m not speaking a lot about it,” the power forward said, “but I felt that I was wrongfully arrested. Things that was put out there wasn’t true. But I don’t want to be a distraction to my team, my organization, so I’m just going to move forward and play basketball.”
Pressed about whether he expects a fine or suspension from the NBA, he quickly replied, “No. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Randolph thus begins his 17th NBA season and his reunion with Dave Joerger, his head coach during three of his final four years with the Grizzlies. He also is reunited with center Kosta Koufos, his teammate for two seasons in Memphis.
Their tour of duty figures to be significantly different from the previous one, largely because these Kings are young and unproven. Scheduled for growing pains, not for the postseason.
Randolph, George Hill and Vince Carter swear they have no regrets. No challenge is too formidable, apparently. The veterans knew what they were walking into when they signed their short-term free agent deals – the beautiful Golden 1 Center, a rabid fan base and a franchise in the midst of an aggressive renovation.
But check after the first seven-game losing streak. Losing ages players and coaches faster than that calendar. Joerger, who is entering his second season with the Kings, is committed to developing his youngsters in hopes of accelerating the process, which means throwing them to the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Cavaliers and Timberwolves, among others.
The other consideration is that both Randolph (36) and Carter (40) are approaching the outer limits of an NBA lifespan, and with the addition of their tutorial duties, Joerger fears the burden could become onerous.
“Sometimes I think you have got to protect Zach,” Joerger said. “I mean he has taken a lot of hits in the course of his career. He only played one year of college, and the first few years in Portland he didn’t play a ton. But as many offensive rebounds as he has grabbed, that body-on-body contact is always there. You talk to people who have played against Zach and they say it’s like wrestling a bear for 48 minutes. He wears you out.”
Randolph, who was lured to Sacramento with a two-year, $24 million contract after spending eight of his most productive years in Memphis, isn’t conceding anything. Not yet, anyway. His preseason goal is help the Kings end their 12-year playoff drought, doing so by whatever means necessary. Teaching. Scolding. Encouraging. Bumping, banging, shoving, elbowing.
That last part? He isn’t just talking about the opponents. Joerger and general manager Vlade Divac were intrigued by Randolph during the offseason partly because his muscular skill set contrasts sharply with the team’s young power forwards.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Harry Giles are lean, tightly-muscled athletes who tend to confuse a 94-foot basketball court with a 100-yard track. They love to run and dunk and beat their opponents downcourt rather than beat them up in the post. Randolph is a different beast, a bruising 6-foot-9, 250-pounder who is an exceptional offensive rebounder, physical defender and a crafty, muscular interior scorer.
“I’m trying to remember another back-to-the-basket player,” Kings assistant Elston Turner pondered, frowning in concentration. “That is a rarity in this league these days because everybody wants to be a stretch four and face up, which Zach can’t really do. But he is an old-fashioned post player and he still gives people fits. So there is a lot of teaching he is going to have to do and I’m sure he’s prepared to do it.”
Randolph, who wants to play beyond his two-year contract, provided he is still productive, seems willing to adapt, perhaps as a minor concession to age. After starting at power forward for most of his career, he came off the bench for the majority of last season and enjoyed another solid year, averaging 14.1 points, 8.2 rebounds (15th in the league) and 1.7 assists while shooting 45 percent in 73 games.
One other nod to youth and the league-wide stretch-four trend is this: The former Michigan State standout attempted 94 3-pointers, the second most of his career (97 tries in 2008-09). If not as outlandish as the sight of, say, the late Manute Bol hoisting 3s during his days with the Warriors, Randolph laughs at the image.
“I’m a baller, man,” he said. “Whatever they want me to do,” he continued, admitting he had initial reservations about the move because of the youthful roster. “I’m used to winning and the Kings have a lot of young talent, special talent. I was out here about a week ago, playing pickup. They work hard. They’ve been here the whole summer. They listen, they want to learn. That’s all you can ask. I was one of those kids that went to Michigan State, came in the league after one year. These young kids are good. It’s exciting.”