From deified to vilified to properly contextualized. From overrated to underrated to properly rated. Julius Randle's one-season stop in Lexington (and it'll only be one season, folks) has run through a gamut of praises and criticisms typically reserved for four-year seniors.
And we all had to know it was coming. As the most highly touted of Kentucky's All-World recruiting class, Randle will be one of the best handful of players in the 2014 NBA Draft and has ultimately done little to hurt or help his stock in college.
The problems apparent in high school have followed him, even under grand wizard John Calipari's tutelage. With the Wildcats having no semblance of outside shooting, teams were free to double and at times triple-team Randle underneath—at which point his limitations as a player became apparent. He's not a skilled passer out of the post at this point in his development, and his score-first mentality leaves him habitually prone to a "black hole" reputation.
Coupled with some mental lapses, Randle's up-and-down season is the perfect representation of Kentucky's own foibles. On some nights, he can look like an indomitable force down low. Others, he blends in like an anonymous fifth-year senior just happy to be on the court. But no matter how inconsistent or bafflingly stubborn a player Randle can be at times, there is no denying he's the most talented player on this Kentucky roster.
Randle is averaging 15.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. Conference opponents' propensity for double teams suppressed his scoring numbers a bit—there's no reason someone of Randle's skill set should attempt so many field goals—so it will be imperative for guys like Andrew and Aaron Harrison to step up.
For Randle, though, the NCAA tournament remains a proving ground. Even in an era where scouting services like Synergy are available to NBA teams and nearly every game is available on a TV platform, scouts and pundits remain transfixed about what happens in March. A great tournament could re-enter Randle into the top-three conversation. A bad one could cost him millions of dollars as scouts again question his NBA ceiling.
No pressure or anything.
With that in mind, let's check in on Randle, give the essential information and attempt to mine the best things about one of March's most important figures.
- Despite his struggles as a team defender and a poor overall reputation, Randle's individual defense stats actually grade out quite well. Opposing players are averaging just 0.632 points per possession and shooting 28.3 percent against Randle in isolations, per Synergy Sports.
- The sample is limited, but Randle has struggled in pick-and-roll coverage this season—a major staple of every NBA roster. He ranked in just the 16th percentile during the regular season, per Synergy.
- Randle had a reputation as a very good face-up player coming out of high school, but dribble-heavy sets haven't worked at Kentucky. Per Synergy, he's shooting just 31.4 percent in isolations this season and has turned the ball over 17 percent of the time. His second-worst shooting percentage comes in post-ups, which isn't exactly ideal considering it's his most-used type of play.
- His mother played basketball at Texas-Arlington. He wears No. 30 because she did.
- ESPN's Chad Ford currently lists Randle as the fifth-best player in the 2014 NBA draft class. My film work is still limited with Australian guard Dante Exum, the one non-no-brainer listed ahead of Randle by Ford, but fifth feels like the right spot. Any general manager who thinks about taking Randle over Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid or Andrew Wiggins should be fired on the spot. Oh. Sorry. Fun facts. Got distracted there.
- He once made John Calipari make this face:
- Watch him destroy the world in this 2012 Elite 24 dunk contest, once again highlighting the fact that the NBA's Saturday spectacle is an embarrassment:
- Now watch Louisville guard Russ Smith destroy Randle:
- Randle is much taller than Drake.
It's hard to quantify individual success in the NCAA Tournament. If Randle goes into beast mode against Kansas State and Kentucky loses, it'll be forgotten by the second weekend. If Randle sleepwalks through the first weekend but the Wildcats somehow survive, it'll be a gift and a curse—keeping him on the biggest stage while he's struggling. The worst-case scenario involves a one-and-out with a terrible performance, which could make scouts really re-examine Randle's intraconference struggles.
And any of those scenarios are possibilities. Kentucky, the nation's preseason No. 1, isn't exactly all that much better than last season's NIT disappointment. The Wildcats finished the regular season with 22 wins—exactly one more than they had in that nightmare 2012-13 campaign. Being one-and-done is far from out of the question.
As for Randle, how he performs will be as much about his teammates as anything. He can't face double teams on every possession and expect to efficiently score down low. It's imperative for the Harrison twins and James Young to get something working on the perimeter, otherwise Kansas State will just close off the paint and dare Kentucky to win with guard play.
Randle was the first freshman since Michael Beasley to have 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in his first two collegiate games. Teams have gotten better at defending him individually, but there's a reason he had exactly two 20-10 games in all of conference play. Until the NCAA finds its version of the defensive three seconds penalty, opposing teams can just camp in the middle and destroy Randle's game.
That's the biggest reason I'm bullish on Randle's NBA prospects. There's just too much perimeter talent in the NBA for teams to double a guy on every possession. And even with every defense 2.9-ing their way to success at the next level, the spacing of the pro game is just infinitely better for Randle.
Unfortunately, he's not a pro yet. Randle will have at least one more collegiate game, and I suspect it'll be a repeat of what we saw late this season. Expect him to finish with a double-double average, but one that's more 14 points and 10 rebounds than 24 points and 15 rebounds.
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