LOS ANGELES — Very little about Julius Randle corroborates the fact that he’s only 20 years old.
From his wrinkled brow and statuesque build to the way he casually glides coast to coast after tearing defensive rebounds off the glass, the Lakers' prodigious starter plays ahead of his time and possesses terrifying potential.
Through seven preseason games, he’s shown exactly why Los Angeles' front office was smart to select him with the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft.
Heading into the regular season, some areas of Randle’s game are light years ahead of expectations, while others still need a bit of work. He’s averaging 19.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes in the preseason, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 60.7 percent in the paint (where he’s clearly most comfortable as a scorer). These are wonderful numbers, but they don't fully encapsulate why Randle is such a favorable prospect.
A little under a year after he fractured his right tibia, Randle overflows with unrestrained force. He’s offensively aggressive, attacking defenders who sag off him like a bull whose sole objective is to impale an overmatched matador.
Here’s a quick example, as Randle passes up a wide-open corner three to draw a shooting foul on Portland’s Meyers Leonard:
It's jarring to witness someone so large and athletic initiate his team's offense. All levels of calm evaporate from the court when Randle has the ball. He pushes it like a point guard, inverting the opponent's transition defense and putting his man in an obviously uncomfortable spot. At a recent Lakers practice, I asked Randle if anything about his ability to make on-the-fly decisions at the NBA level surprised him so far:
“No. I’ve done it my whole life,” he said. “It’s just an adjustment, as you get to another level. There’s an adjustment as to how you work that into a new team, what works at this level and what you can get better at. You are who you are.”
You are who you are, indeed. Here’s what Randle currently is: A 6’9”, 250-pound jackhammer who can handle the ball, put back offensive rebounds and score both one-on-one and in traffic. It’s an impressive package, especially when you account for his ability to impact games without putting the ball in the basket.
Facing the Trail Blazers on Monday night, Randle played the entire first quarter, but failed to score a single point. He did, however, tally four assists that should’ve been five had Lakers swingman Anthony Brown not stepped out of bounds before sinking this corner three.
Here he sets up Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson for an open three by driving into the paint and forcing a reaction from help defenders.
Clarkson isn’t surprised by the former lottery pick’s play-making. But earlier this week he did comment on one area of Randle’s game that’s yet to translate from the practice floor to live-game action.
“I knew he was fast, and he could make plays for others and push the ball and rebound,” Clarkson said. “But seeing his jump shot and how that’s really developed and still continues to develop is good. It opens the floor a lot. It helps everybody in terms of spacing, you know, making it tough on the defense, so when he gets that in and it’s automatic for him, there’s gonna be some problems.”
According to NBA.com, Randle has attempted 12 mid-range jumpers during the preseason. Only one went in. Obviously, that’s not great, but it also comes from a small sample size.
Randle won’t be LaMarcus Aldridge right away, but his progress as a shooter is definitely something to monitor throughout the year. Along with making simpler passes (Randle leads the Lakers in turnovers per possession, per NBA.com), he acknowledges the importance of becoming a catch-and-shoot threat.
Randle’s defense is also huge question mark. He’s quick and strong, but he doesn’t have particularly long arms or the intuitive feel for back- or front-line rotations. Per DraftExpress, Randle’s wingspan is slightly below average for his position. It limits his ability to protect the rim and eliminates any margin for error as a help defender sliding across the paint.
Randle understands he isn’t perfect on that end, and he knows where and how he needs to improve.
“I’m getting better; it’s an advantage for me being able to switch and guard multiple positions,” Randle said. “Obviously, we have big Roy in the back, so he takes care of a lot of things. We can gamble or whatever it may be. But [I’m] just trying to stay solid, learn my rotations, pick-and-rolls, call stuff out early, that’s pretty much it.”
Simply knowing where to be on the floor is a huge part of NBA defense. So far, Randle hasn’t mastered it; he gets caught ball-watching a decent amount, as most young players do.
Randle’s flaws are real but, for the most part, correctable. It’s more than likely he tops out as an average defender—though his ability to switch makes him especially valuable in the modern NBA—but the production he brings on the other end is electrifying and rare. It’s why Kobe Bryant told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News that he's “Lamar Odom in a Zach Randolph body.”
For the time being, Randle doesn’t want to hear those comparisons. When I asked him which NBA player he models his game after, he shook his head and replied “myself.” Randle understands how unique his game is, and he clearly isn’t focused on being anything but a prototype.
“I don’t try to be like anybody,” he said. “I try to be myself.”
This might be scary news for the rest of the NBA.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.