Kentucky's Julius Randle made one heck of a sales pitch to the pros during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. It just might have been his most convincing one of the year.
And it was a statement he needed to make.
Despite the 15-point, 10-rebound double-double Randle is averaging, some questions have been raised throughout the year regarding his NBA outlook.
The ultimate goal here is to extinguish those questions, and to prove to scouts that his flaws and weaknesses won't prevent him from flourishing as a pro.
And the No. 1 most commonly mentioned concern amongst scouts is Randle's lack of length.
Must Prove: Length isn't an Issue
He's got short arms for an interior-oriented big man. At last April's 2013 Nike Hoops Summit, Randle's wingspan measured 6'11". To some, it's just a number. To others, it could be a deal-breaker—especially when Indiana's Noah Vonleh, the other top power forward prospect in the field, has a whopping five more inches of length.
And we've seen long arms bother Randle before.
He tends to rely on his strength to create separation—he'll initiate contact in order to bounce off his defender and create the space he needs to get off his shot. But against length, or an NBA-sized athlete like Baylor's Isaiah Austin below, strength alone isn't always enough to create the necessary separation:
Randle has to show he's got the skill set to counter that length. It could mean spinning right instead of left or using a pivot step to escape.
Against Wichita State, we saw Randle show a bit more finishing versatility. He had answers on the fly—if the defense took away his first look, he found a way to respond with a second.
Randle got fans out of their seats with a nifty move in the second half that saw him spin into the lane for a lefty layup before switching to his right mid-play to avoid the contest:
It's a little too late to show it in game action, but it would also be a good look for Randle if he's able to knock down jumpers during pre-draft workouts. A jump shot is essentially a counter to rim protection, considering it's a way to score with balance, whereas shots in the paint often require one to score in heavy traffic.
And in the pros, that traffic consists of 7-footers with disruptive length.
This season, he's only got three three-pointers on the year, and he rarely attempts a jumper of any sort off two feet.
Randle is going to have to prove he can step outside and knock down that mid-range jumper—the one that makes Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph such a tough inside-outside cover.
Because at the next level, bully basketball on the interior isn't going to work on every possession—not with a wingspan much shorter than the majority of defenders' and rim protectors' he'll be challenging.
Must Prove: He can Make his Teammates Better
The talent is obviously there, but scouts want to see Randle use it to make those around him better.
That could mean anticipating the double-team and kicking it out to a shooter. Randle picked up a few assists out of the post against the Shockers by simply baiting the defense, drawing it to him and then kicking it out to spot-up shooters.
Look at all the attention he draws, and look how free his teammates are because of it:
Making his teammates better can be something as simple as grabbing a defensive rebound, pushing it up the floor (thanks to a competent open-floor handle) and finding a shooter before the defense can set:
We're not just talking about Randle executing the pass, the drive-and-kick or the break—it's recognizing when to do it, and how to capitalize on his strengths and the attention he draws for each specific situation.
He dished out a season-high six assists against Wichita State in what was one of his more complete performances of the year.
Julius Randle: 1st with at least 10 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists in a tournament win over a 1 seed since Dwyane Wade ('03 vs Kentucky)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 23, 2014
Look for Randle to build on his fine passing outing and carry it into the Sweet 16 against Louisville.
Must Prove: Defensive Playmaking Ability
In 36 games, Randle has a total of 29 blocks and 17 steals.
For the most part, we're dealing with a one-way big man, and it's going to be tough for him to change that perception.
However, in the time he has left with Kentucky, any defensive playmaking can help.
He made a huge block at the rim on Ron Baker in the Round of 32—a play that highlighted his exciting blend of athleticism and mobility.
Randle isn't going to convince anyone he's the next Omer Asik of the post or Roy Hibbert of the rim. But as long as he shows can make some plays opportunistically as a shot-blocker, thief or help defender, it could help diminish the concern over his defensive capability.
Length, offensive recognition (making teammates better) and defense are the three major holes in Randle's game and the package he's offering. Though through two NCAA tournament games, he's done a real nice job of hiding them.
Whether it's against Louisville in the Sweet 16, later on in April or during the pre-draft process, Randle has to continue trying to prove these holes won't won't prevent him sailing smoothly once making the NBA jump.