Even before he had stepped on a court for Kentucky, Julius Randle was considered a top-five prospect for June’s NBA draft. 13 games into his Wildcats career, he’s done little to dispel that impression.
Randle’s primary value to a pro team will be as a scorer, and he’s certainly held up well in that department. Not only is he averaging 18.1 points per game, but he’s maintained his effectiveness against the best competition he’s faced.
Against Baylor (with likely future pros Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson up front), Randle shot 5-for-10 from the floor in scoring 16 points. He was even more impressive against Adreian Payne-led Michigan State, scorching the Spartans for 27 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
Another great sign for Randle is that he’s already a respectable free-throw shooter, hitting 72 percent of his tries from the line so far. With a style that relies heavily on catching in the post or driving from the wing, he’ll get plenty of foul-shooting chances at the next level.
Randle’s rebounding has been even more impressive when it comes to raw production, as he’s currently ranked 12th in the country with 10.6 boards per game. Again, he’s continued to shine against physical opponents, recording eight rebounds against Austin’s Bears and 13 against Payne’s Spartans.
However, it’s hard to see his performance in that category translating quite as well to the NBA, because he’s not an A-plus athlete. The power forwards who have held up as elite rebounders in the pros—Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge—are significantly more mobile than Randle, giving them better opportunities to secure long rebounds in addition to the ones they can battle for in the post.
Similarly, the biggest weakness in Randle’s pro portfolio—his defense—is only going to get worse against NBA-level length and leaping ability. Even during Kentucky’s non-conference schedule, when his 6’9”, 250-lb frame has routinely dominated the stage on offense, he’s amassed just nine blocks and one steal in 13 games.
Being an impact defender certainly isn’t a requirement for a high-level NBA PF—just ask former All-Stars Zach Randolph or Carlos Boozer—but it does raise the stakes for the rest of Randle’s game. He’ll need to continue showing his current level of overpowering offensive production if he’s going to stay in the top-five conversation.
Then, of course, there’s the factor that’s out of Randle’s control entirely: the competition. In a predicted draft class that’s being lauded for its astonishing depth, Randle’s quick start has helped him outshine nearly all his rivals.
Andrew Wiggins, the preseason favorite for No. 1, hasn’t approached Randle’s production or his confidence as the focal point of an offense. By the same token, none of Randle’s highly-touted Kentucky teammates has come close to dominating games the way he has.
At this stage, two players appear to have strong cases for being picked ahead of Randle: Kansas’ Joel Embiid, for his upside, and Duke’s Jabari Parker, for his ready-to-go production.
Embiid is a genuine seven-footer with mobility, but there’s no telling whether his raw offensive game will ever progress to something resembling Randle’s polished low-post skill set. He’s got the advantages of size and strong defensive instincts, but he’s certainly not going to help a pro team as soon as Randle will.
The more telling comparison may be to Parker, one of the two players (with Wiggins) widely ranked ahead of Randle as high schoolers. The Duke forward, a marvelous defender and an even more gifted scorer than Randle, would have been the hands-down choice for most impressive freshman in the country...until this week.
Parker’s first two ACC games have been disasters, with the once-unstoppable scorer disappearing against big front lines from Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Randle has yet to make his SEC debut, but a showing as poor as Parker’s could easily drop him from the top five.
For now, though, the Wildcats’ leader is safely entrenched in that range, with an outside shot at the top choice but a likelier home at No. 3 overall (with allowances for the needs of whichever teams earn the favor of the lottery ping-pong balls).