Lakers' Julius Randle Has Long Way to Go to Reach Potential

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2016

Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle dunks during the second half of the Lakers' NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Spurs won 108-95. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Through the first 50 games of his NBA career, Los Angeles Lakers power forward Julius Randle has established himself as one of the league's most enigmatic prospects. 

What's his ceiling? Left-handed Paul Millsap? A faster, bouncier Zach Randolph

What's his floor? Below-the-rim Kenneth Faried? A smaller, less athletic Blake Griffin who can't shoot, pass or see the floor as well?

With just a little over half a season's worth of evidence—inside a regressive environment—Randle remains a total mystery. 

Since returning to full strength, after breaking his leg 14 minutes into his "actual" rookie season last year, we've seen a physical marvel whose imposing strengths and glaring weaknesses contrast and complicate. 

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Randle is one of the best young rebounders in NBA history. He's also one of the least efficient young forwards of the three-point era, with defensive effort and awareness that shifts from play to play.

On such a terrible team, with so much being asked of him on a possession-by-possession basis, Randle has no time to develop on his own time. It's not easy to parse which numbers help his team win and which are empty calories.

Randle's per-game statistics have been solid since he replaced Larry Nance Jr. in L.A.'s starting lineup a couple of weeks ago, but is it a sign of growth or a random blip from an uber-small sample size?

"I think he realizes the mistakes; he's starting to learn from those," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said when asked about Randle's in-season development. "He still plays hard. He still goes after rebounds on a consistent basis. He's starting to make the mid-range shot. He's starting to run the floor. So I think he's starting to grow and understand some of the things that I need him to do on a night-to-night basis. My thing is I want him to continue to do that and a little bit more each week. Not try to rush it and force it, just let it come naturally."

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Randle is averaging 13.2 points (on 46.2 percent shooting) and 11.3 rebounds per game over his previous nine games, all of which were starts. He's 7-of-15 on jump shots from 16-24 feet, per NBA.com. That's a huge improvement on both attempts and accuracy from the 41 previous contests, when he was 14-of-59. 

"He's been playing really well," Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson told Bleacher Report. "Shooting the jump shot, getting to the rim, rebounding. He's playing hard on both sides of the ball. He's growing. It's his first year playing. Everything is growing."

Randle is trending in the right direction, but the results are far from conclusive. It's natural to worry about a big who doesn't shoot threes, flinches from the mid-range and struggles to finish near the basket:


Among all players who've attempted at least 200 shots in the restricted area, Randle is worse than everyone except five point guards: Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, Ish Smith, Clarkson and Jeff Teague. But Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford still sees plenty of reason to buy stock in the young forward.

"I think that his ability to attack off the dribble at the 4 spot is where it starts for him on offense," he said. "You know, he's so good with the ball, and he's got a quick first step. If you give him an angle, a way to get to the basket, he can attack the basket."

According to ESPN.com's Real Plus-Minus, Randle is the 89th-best offensive power forward in the league...out of 95. On defense, he's 82nd, which drags us toward another area of concern.

Unless you're Blake Griffin (who makes his teammates better and can create his own efficient shot whenever he wants from almost anywhere on the floor), to be a useful starting power forward in today's NBA—let alone an All-Star—you need two qualities as a baseline: 1) the quickness, strength and length to defend inside the paint and out on the perimeter and 2) a jump shot.

Ideally, your range should stretch behind the three-point line, your arms should be long enough to protect the rim and you should be quick enough to contest shots and muck up pick-and-roll action.

Randle can't shoot, and his pick-and-roll defense is poor. Some of his failure can be blamed on poor awareness and a lack of consistent energy. Some of it's due to the fact only five players in the NBA have committed more personal fouls. 

"[Randle] is a kid that can guard people when he really wants to. He really can. One-on-one, he can guard people when he really wants to," Scott said. "Now, his problem isn't as bad as some of our guys, where when the ball's away from him he doesn't know what to do. But sometimes he relaxes. Just like all our young guys. I mean, when their guy doesn't have the ball they just seem to feel like they're not involved and they tend to relax, so they're not paying attention to details as far as weak-side defense and things of that sort."

In Los Angeles' blowout loss against the Hornets on Sunday night, Randle's man, Marvin Williams, knocked down four threes. All were open, either because the Lakers poorly executed Scott's defensive strategy (aka never knew what it was) or Randle lost his assignment in transition. 

Here's Randle and Clarkson lazily attempting to trap Kemba Walker as he comes off Williams' screen as if they're participating in a practice drill at half speed. What is this?


After that game, Scott said he instructed his team to switch pick-and-rolls in the second half—a move that helped limit the Hornets to 2-of-15 shooting from behind the three-point line in the third and fourth quarters. But being that the Hornets were 11-of-21 in the first half, that adjustment was like sticking a Band-Aid over a stab wound.

Here's another example that isn't entirely Randle's fault, but he doesn't come out looking too great either. Clarkson gets beaten backdoor by Walker, so Randle drops down to cut off the angle on Spencer Hawes' potential bounce pass. Meanwhile, Williams picks Clarkson on his way to the perimeter for an open three.

To stop this set, defenders need to communicate and make multiple efforts. Randle stops moving once he drops into the paint, and Clarkson has no idea he's getting helped.


Furthermore, here's a small sample of frontcourt players who allow a similar percentage to Randle's 54.3 percent when defending shots at the rim: Faried, Thaddeus Young and Jared Sullinger. For the most part, these comparisons check out as a decent measuring stick for the type of career Randle will have unless he enters next season with a shiny new shooting motion.

All is not lost, however. For Randle to stay productive over the next 10 years, a post game is helpful but not required. The ability to read a defense and make smart, quick passes is useful but not a necessity. Even if no other parts of his game improve, he'll always have a job so long as he can play volleyball on the glass.

In the history of the league, only 13 players ages 25 or younger have ever grabbed at least 30 percent of their teams' available defensive rebounds. Randle, who holds the fourth-highest defensive rebound rate in the NBA, is one of them, per Basketball-Reference.

"I've just matured throughout the season, whether it's starting lineup or not," Randle said. "I felt like I've just matured, gotten better and taken every opportunity I can to maximize it."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

All of this makes Randle an intriguing forecast. He has bits and pieces of Draymond Green, Tristan Thompson and Millsap in his body type and/or playing style, and such a small percentage of his natural ability has been tapped. But right now, his flaws really limit just how good he can be.

"He's doing everything off raw talent right now," Lakers guard Nick Young told Bleacher Report. "And that's saying a lot. That guy's going to get better and better. He's 260 or something like that, dribbling the ball. He's strong, athletic, and once he gets that jump shot down pat, he's gonna be hard to stop."

If the jumper never comes, Randle can still have an above-average career. But he won't be the franchise-altering star Los Angeles is praying for.

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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