For the second season in a row, Kentucky basketball will be pinning a large share of its offense on a top-notch freshman power forward. When Julius Randle filled that role, he helped carry the Wildcats to the national title game. Is Trey Lyles equipped to lead a similar charge?
The most obvious distinction to draw between Randle and Lyles might best be compared to the distinction between 2014 All-Americans Jabari Parker and Doug McDermott. Both pairs consist of great players, but in each case, the former is an overpowering athlete while the latter isn’t.
In Lyles’ case, that means he’ll get less of his offense from leaping over or darting past defenders and more of it from an eye-catching collection of low-post moves. The Indianapolis native is a far more polished offensive player than Randle, and his extra inch in height (at 6’10”) will make him that much tougher to stop.
The upshot is that while Randle’s scoring average plummeted when he ran into SEC big men—often literally—Lyles should be able to keep putting up big-time point totals all season long. If it weren’t for the Wildcats’ enormous depth, he’d be a real candidate to lead the conference in scoring.
Where Lyles lags behind his predecessor, and fairly significantly, is on the glass. Randle was one of the most intimidating rebounders in the country, but the freshman’s lack of similar strength or leaping ability keeps him within the reach of mere mortals when it comes to hitting the boards.
Kentucky as a team won’t exactly take much of a hit in that department, as Big Blue is still going to have one of the biggest lineups in the country. The likelier outcome is that a few of the rebounds that Randle would’ve vacuumed up last year will instead get shared among the Wildcats’ other rebounding standouts, from the Harrison twins outside to hulking Dakari Johnson inside.
Even if Lyles averaged out to “only” being as good as third-team All-American Randle, Kentucky would be in great shape for next season. However, there’s one more element to the newcomer’s game that gives him a real chance to be even better than his NBA-bound precursor: shot-blocking.
Randle, for all of his strengths, was rarely a playmaker on defense: he averaged just 0.8 rejections per game in 2013-14. Lyles, on the other hand, is one of the better rim protectors in the incoming freshman class. He doesn’t have elite leaping ability, but he plays outstanding positional defense and boasts enough length to get to plenty of shots.
When defensive superstar Willie Cauley-Stein shares the floor with Lyles, Kentucky will be a dramatically tougher unit on D than it was last season. Considering how much offense John Calipari's team has available, the prospect of them getting back to playing championship-caliber defense is a scary thought for any potential opponent.
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