It is easy to forget that Julius Randle is only 21 years old. Compared with other young players on the Los Angeles Lakers, he has a quiet, stable maturity to him. He is not rumored to be dating a Kardashian like Jordan Clarkson nor does he get himself into hot water in assorted ways like D’Angelo Russell. He was recently engaged to his college sweetheart, and the picture he posted afterward is one of the few times anyone in Los Angeles has seen him smile.
But no one should confuse the facade with what lies beneath the surface, an intense basketball player with a burning desire to be great. For those who underestimate him, beware, Randle is gunning to prove he is one of the best power forwards in the NBA and here’s why you shouldn’t bet against him.
Randle entered the league with a chip on his shoulder after dropping to seventh in the 2014 NBA Draft due primarily to concerns about a previous foot injury. He was a three-time Texas state champion in high school, rated the second best prospect in the nation by Rivals.com after averaging 32.5 points and 22.5 rebounds per game his senior year. He then starred for one season at the University of Kentucky, where he often played like a man among boys while averaging 15 points and 10.4 rebounds per contest. He set the University of Kentucky freshman record for double-doubles, besting a mark that had been shared by two players who have done pretty well in the NBA, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis.
Many seem to have forgotten, so it bears remembering that Randle was no ordinary high school or college star, he was a special talent by any measure.
When he entered the NBA at 19, like many rookies, he discovered he was not in physical shape for the next level, and thus he struggled in Summer League and again in training camp. When the regular season started, he was just rounding into condition, and, as opposed to Clarkson who was pegged to sit at the end of the bench, Randle was going to see action. But he broke his leg in the first game of the season and was lost for the year.
In evaluating Randle’s 2015-16 season, while few cut him any slack, it is only fair to consider two important factors. First, he was returning after a long layoff and had to deal with the brutal physical and psychological effects of overcoming a serious injury. Second, when he came back, he was a rookie for all practical purposes and an inexperienced one at that, returning from an extended layoff after playing only one year of college ball.
Last season, Randle battled back and played in 81 games. He started only 60, however, as he and Russell were famously demoted by then-coach Byron Scott for a lengthy stretch in one of Scott’s more questionable moves. Randle never sulked or complained publicly, he just kept pounding away and turned himself into a double-double machine like he was in college, finishing the season with averages of 11.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in 28 minutes of play.
Randle has already proven he is an excellent rebounder, which was critical of last year’s team that featured Roy Hibbert at center, one of the worst rebounders in the league for his size. Randle, listed at 6’9 though probably more like 6’8″, is undersized for a power forward but very strong, gets excellent position under the boards, and knows how to use his body to shield opponents from the ball. His biggest attribute, however, is his tenacity. If he misses he goes up and tips the ball again and again, often displaying an astonishing refusal to be denied.
When Randle grabs a defensive rebound, he can push the ball up the court as quickly as any power forward in the league, with his excellent speed and ball handling skills. This should prove to be a valuable weapon in Luke Walton’s expected uptempo style of play By the end of last season, he was also making effective passes on a regular basis. Thus he will likely earn his share of assists in an offense where the ball moves.
Although Randle averaged double digits last year in scoring, this is the area that will likely define his NBA career. He has a knack for using his speed and power to get to the rim, but so far he has had trouble finishing. This explains his sub-par shooting percentage of .429. For a player who lives in the paint, he should be at 48 percent or better, and if he gets there, he could easily average 18 points a game or more. Learning to finish with his off-hand would help.
The biggest knock against Randle, however, is that he lacks a mid-range shot which allows defenders to stay back to block his path to the rim. For Randle to make a big leap as a pro, he must be a threat from mid-range which will have the added advantage of opening the lanes for him. Presumably, this is the facet of his game he is working on most this offseason. Randle is not the first player to enter the league without a proficient outside shot, and it is no exaggeration to say that improving in this area is the key to his next season and beyond.
Defense is another area in which he needs to improve – as does nearly everyone else on the roster. He is strong, speedy and athletic, so it is probably just a matter of making defense a top priority which no one on the team did last year. He did make quality stops and blocks on a random basis, so this should be an area where he improves. Randle’s combination of strength and quickness should make him effective against all but the tallest power forwards.
For whatever reason, many observers talk about Randle as though he were a four-year veteran who has already reached his ceiling. In fact, he is a very young player coming off what amounted to his rookie season in which he averaged a double-double, a feat accomplished only by Karl-Anthony Towns among all rookies last year – and no one questions Towns’ future superstar status. In a few years, when Randle is 24 or 25, there is good reason to believe he will be a feared and respected power forward on a Lakers team that will be starting to make a deep playoff run.