LOS ANGELES — Ninety minutes before the opening tip of a recent loss to the comically dysfunctional Sacramento Kings, a restless Julius Randle bounces around near the Staples Center baseline, flicking set shots toward the hoop.
An assistant coach passes the Los Angeles Lakers sophomore the ball, he takes one dribble toward the hoop, sets his feet and then leisurely shoves up a jumper. About half go in.
One minute later, Randle jogs above the right elbow to continue the routine. After a couple of misses and a few makes, he moves to the opposite elbow before concluding with another minute’s worth of jumpers from just inside the left corner.
The exercise is brief, casual and beyond necessary. If Randle wants to be more than the next Tristan Thompson, he desperately needs a jump shot that forces defenders to close out and contest, let alone pay attention. It’s critical.
But overnight improvement is impossible. For now, other parts of Randle's game are finally starting to shine; he's shown that, at least in the short term, he can still be effective without any range.
“I just [want to] keep developing,” he told Bleacher Report. “Whatever comes, just taking it. Whether it’s a mid-range, floater all the way to the outside.”
Since the All-Star break, Randle’s true shooting percentage is 52.8, up from a debilitating 46.9 through the season’s first 54 games. His jumper is far from fixed, but Randle's improved his ability to finish around the basket. Before the All-Star break, he was at 50.9 percent within five feet of the rim. Since, he's up to 59.4 percent, per NBA.com.
In the clip below, he does a fantastic job creating room with a quick drop step toward the baseline before finishing with his right hand.
Additionally, posting an impressive box score is not one of Randle’s problems. He’s averaging a double-double in well under 30 minutes per game (27.8). Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside is the only other player in the league who can make the same claim, per Basketball-Reference.com.
“He’s just got a nose for the ball,” Lakers head coach Byron Scott said. “He’s just one of those guys that, if he plays 25 minutes or more, he’s probably going to get a double-double."
Randle's rebounding is a big deal. Despite missing all but 14 minutes of his rookie season, he still leads his draft class in total boards by 59. In second place is Andrew Wiggins, who’s played over 3,400 more minutes. This year, Randle has more defensive rebounds than Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis.
Only four players have a defensive rebounding rate that’s above 30 percent: Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside and Randle. At 6’9” with a wingspan that isn’t anything to write home about, the second-year forward is relentless and physical. He punishes stretch 4s who (mistakenly) believe they're strong enough to box him out.
A few months ago it was safe to wonder how much of Randle’s statistics were empty calories. The Lakers are awful, and almost no on/off numbers have justified the belief Randle makes them better. But over the past few weeks, the sample size might finally be large enough to support a few opinions.
For example: The Lakers are never less imposing on the defensive glass than when Randle isn’t in the game. And on the other end, he’s doing more with offensive rebounds:
This subtle combination of patience and aggression didn’t exist in November or December. Look how he rips the ball away, scampers out to the perimeter, realizes he can take his man off the dribble and then immediately attacks.
According to Scott, "three to five years" need to pass before the Lakers can know exactly what they have with Randle. It's fair to say they don't know how high his ceiling is today, but improvement and regression can still be observed in real time.
Before a recent game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tyronn Lue told reporters he wanted to start LeBron James at small forward despite Kevin Love not playing in the game. Why? The Cavaliers head coach didn't want his best player having to endure Randle's physicality early on. Whether the real reason for his decision had more to do with letting James feast on Kobe Bryant or not, it's still nice to hear an opposing coach go out of his way to note Randle's impact.
Again, Randle's jump shot is the biggest area of concern, but he's still capable of positively affecting L.A.'s attack, specifically in transition. Anytime a big can rush the ball up the court and force defenders to scramble in transition, it creates confusion and mismatches. When said big keeps his eye on the rim, it leads to a basket:
More good news: If you study how some of the league's most established power forwards shot the ball early in their careers, there's a clear precedent to Randle reaching his full, borderline-All-Star potential.
Zach Randolph made only seven mid-range jump shots his rookie season, and then shot 33.3 percent in year two. Blake Griffin was at 33.9 percent, Draymond Green shot 27.9 percent and Paul Millsap went 22-of-61. Randle's made four mid-range jump shots since the All-Star break, but there's plenty of time to be concerned in the years ahead.
For now, the Lakers should be happy with the gradual developments in other areas of his game.
"[Randle] is playing well. He’s playing hard on both ends of the floor, and you can definitely see the improvement," D'Angelo Russell said. "Everything is coming easy for him."
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted, and all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise, and are current entering games March 18.