Meet Julius Randle, your latest piece of anecdotal evidence against judging minuscule sample sizes.
If you're reading this, it's very likely because you revolved your night around the activities at the United Center Tuesday night, where possibly the top three picks in the 2014 NBA draft had their introduction to the national stage. Or maybe it's because you want to make it seem like you revolved your night around kids barely old enough to buy lottery tickets.
Randle, in the first matchup of the Associated Press' top two teams in five years, got the first crack. And he did not disappoint—at least so long as you only watched the second half.
After the break, Randle was every bit as dominant an inside presence as we've seen in recent college basketball. Plowing over an undersized Michigan State front line hamstrung by the foul trouble of Adreian Payne, Randle bullied his way through double-teams, finished with a soft touch around the basket and shot a reassuring percentage from the foul line.
The Wildcats wound up falling just short of their comeback bid, losing 78-74 after Branden Dawson tipped in a miss with just more than five seconds remaining to make it a two-possession game. The soon-to-be former top-ranked team in the nation never led the entire contest and was only tied once after the opening whistle—at 66-66 with just under four minutes to play.
Despite his team's struggles, Randle was far from the reason the Wildcats moved to 2-1. He scored 23 of his 27 points in the final 20 minutes—more than half his team's total—and added nine boards, with Kentucky's offensive strategy essentially consisting of giving Randle the ball in the post and getting the hell out of the way.
“[Other teams] probably just going to have to double him,” Payne said of defending Randle. “He’s a great player; he’s got a quick first step."
It was a performance so good, it almost made you forget about the first half.
In the first 20 minutes, Randle was almost as bad as he was brilliant in the final frame. With Payne coming as close as possible to matching Randle's strength, he disappeared for large stretches and wasn't effective when given the ball. He had as many turnovers in the first 20 minutes as points (four), struggled badly with team defense assignments and allowed Payne to score 10 straight points at one juncture.
There was so much Randle slander at halftime that I half considered contacting attorneys on his behalf. In arguably the biggest moment of his young life—68 NBA scouts and plenty more team representatives were at the United Center—the kid who averaged 23-15 over his first two games was nowhere to be found.
So what happened during the break? How did a kid who looked so tentative in the first half come out with a grown-man's aggression in the second? Did John Calipari shoot him full of horse testosterone or something?
Of course not. The answer is simple: He's an 18-year-old kid playing in his third collegiate game and his first against anyone who you've ever heard of. In wins over UNC-Ashville and Northern Kentucky, Randle might as well have been guarded by bar stools.
If you're an NBA scout on a lottery-bound team, Tuesday night was both affirming—Randle was damn good, as were Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins—and ultimately meaningless. We, being the narrative-driven folk we are, will ascribe more importance to this evening than it merits. Who else is ready for all the "Who's the real No. 1 in 2014" columns by super original writers Wednesday morning?
What we saw from Randle (and Wiggins and Parker) were flashes of just how great he can be and how far he has to go.
Case in point, there is no player in college basketball who can do what Randle does here:
With his team's life on the line, Randle bodies through a double-team, spins over his shoulder and actually creates a solid enough look despite a forest of green around him. This was at a point in the contest where Tom Izzo, John Calipari and everyone in the country knew the ball was going inside to Randle. He saddled up, threw his posterior into people and finished with touch.
This wasn't an isolated incident:
Look at how much attention he's drawing there.
Now, there are a bunch of ways to interpret the images highlighted. The pessimist that exists in all of us wonders why Randle didn't pass in either situation. He had numerous, far less contested shots available to his teammates on both of these possessions and chose to go all Al Jefferson and barrel toward the basket anyway. It was rare that we saw the ball leave Randle's hands once it was dumped into the post, which of course worked out pretty, pretty well, but it also left him and Kentucky susceptible to mistakes.
You know, like turnovers. Randle finished with eight. That was the most among any player who was in attendance at the United Center Tuesday. Michigan State as a team only had seven. Many of them happened out of situations where he was doubled or tripled and failed to recognize his predicament before it was too late.
Randle needs to get better as a ball-handler and passer, though he did have a nifty coast-to-coast drive that flashed his potential in that regard.
But there are other, more positive ways to spin Randle's decision-making. It starts with the fact that he's still good enough, still powerful enough to finish with touch despite Izzo doing everything but hitting him with a steel chair WWE-style. He has an obvious hitch in his spin move and uses it too often, but once that gets polished and he uses it more judiciously, it'll be lethal. It's impressive for someone his age to have this much polish around the rim.
What's more, no NBA team is going to throw that much attention his way. It's a bit unfair to start spinning his third collegiate game into indicators of his professional acumen, but the Spartans would have spent their whole night getting whistled for three-second violations. NBA teams are increasingly adept at running hybrid systems, packing the paint with one-foot-in principles that try to create the best of both worlds between man and zone.
That said, even the best NBA players get doubled—not quadrupled. You could throw Randle on the putrid 2013-14 Jazz and he'd have more space. Yes, even with the decomposing Richard Jefferson in the lineup.
And that's why it's so misguided to evaluate a player just because he's on the national stage. You see some good, some bad and it tends to warp perspectives unfairly. Yes, Randle is probably the most physically imposing offensive big in college basketball. Yes, he's a bit of a black hole who has trouble passing out of the post and could be prone for high-turnover outcomes.
These things aren't mutually exclusive. But if that was the Julius Randle we're seeing in November of his freshman collegiate season, I can't wait to see what comes next.
All quotes via ESPN broadcast.
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