Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle is about as polarizing of a player as one will find in the NBA. Depending on who you ask, he is destined to either inefficient mediocrity or multiple All-Star appearances.
The reason for the wide-ranging opinions regarding Randle largely has to do with the state of the modern game, where there is sometimes a disconnect when the eye test and analytics say two different things.
According to the current trends in the NBA, power forwards ideally have the following pre-requisites: a huge wingspan to protect the rim and disrupt passing lanes, solid lateral agility for switching the pick and roll, and the ability to spread the floor on offense with a consistent outside jumper. Bonus points are given if the player has three-point range and can make plays when the defense closes out a la Draymond Green.
The current version Randle checks precisely none of those boxes, which is part of why he slipped to the Lakers at the 7th pick in the first place. Randle is a skilled player, just not in the areas that the prototypical modern four should be.
It all starts with the limitations that his wingspan puts on him. While Randle isn’t the T-Rex-level that some make him out to be (his arm length is average for a human being, a little below average for an NBA athlete), it does negatively impact his ability to finish over defenders. Combine that with notoriously poor outside shooting and a near-complete dependence on his left hand at the basket, and Randle’s shot chart ends up looking like Omaha beach.
So much blood.
It also didn’t help that the Lakers were dead last in three-point percentage last season, so teams were more than happy to play off of Randle and pack the paint, knowing that he is only dangerous when attacking the basket off the dribble. Even when he does manage to get a step on his defender, everyone knows what is coming: power dribble right, spin back to a left hook. It’s a testament to Randle’s athleticism that he manages to score as often as he does when the defense knows exactly what he is going to do.
All that adds up to some very inefficient scoring numbers.
While Randle’s offensive game can be problematic, his defense may be worse. As fast as he is in a dead sprint, Randle isn’t nearly as quick laterally, which impacts his ability to effectively switch on the pick and roll. He also struggles to understand when to help and when to stay at home and isn’t much of a factor deterring shots from the weak side when he does get it right, thanks again to his wingspan.
Overall, players shot 3.8 percent better than their average from the field when Randle was defending them. That’s not good.
Even Randle’s claim to fame–his rebounding– isn’t without question marks. He averaged an impressive 10.2 boards per game as a de facto rookie last season, but some of that can be attributed to playing alongside Roy Hibbert, who is tragically allergic to both rebounds and standing upright. That isn’t to say that Randle is a poor rebounder, but it will be interesting to see if he can still average a double-double when playing with Timofey Mozgov.
Of course, a mountain can (and maybe should) be made out of all of the things that Randle can’t do. He isn’t a great fit into space-and-pace modern NBA, can’t hit the outside shot, and can’t protect the rim. A solid argument can even be made that the Lakers are a better team when Randle is not on the floor and that the versatile Larry Nance Jr. should be the team’s starting power forward.
Then again, Randle can do things like this:
Despite what the analytics say, watching Randle play the game of basketball can be awe-inspiring. He attacks with an aggression that is rarely seen today, and his ball handling skills are impressive. He is so physical that one often finds themselves feeling bad for his defenders, who will emerge from the game with a number of fresh bumps and bruises.
Randle can also rebound the ball defensively and push in transition with the end-to-end speed of a guard. His size allows him to crash through, and defenders foolish enough to put themselves in his path, and he can finish through contact with a double-clutch shot he uses after he takes a bump. It’s a one-man fast break led by a runaway train, and it’s both terrifying and beautiful.
Randle often gets criticized for tunnel vision, and while that’s fair, he’s also a surprisingly good passer when he wants to be. He struggles knowing when to pass and when to attack, but that is to be expected given his inexperience.
The bottom line is that players with Randle’s size and strength aren’t supposed to be able to do the things that he can with a basketball. Despite what the stats say, Randle makes at least one jaw-dropping play each game, and that suggests that his future may be brighter than the numbers or positional trends would indicate.
In an ideal world, Randle’s skills will continue to grow, and allow him to become, as Kobe Bryant once said, “Lamar Odom in Zach Randolph’s body.” His physical tools, speed and strength, allow him to be somewhat effective as-is, but if he is going to bridge the gap between his statistical value and the potential the eye test shows us, Randle is going to have to improve on at least a few of his deficiencies.
The nice thing is that, given his physical gifts, if Randle can improve to just average in a few key areas it will go a long way.
There isn’t much Randle can do about his wingspan, so becoming a rim protector doesn’t appear to be in the cards. Instead, he will need to focus on his pick and roll and weak side defense. If Randle can get better at making the right reads in those situations, it will help to improve the Lakers’ defense around him, and hopefully somewhat lessen the impact of his nearly non-existent shot blocking.
Likewise, Randle isn’t going to morph into Steph Curry anytime soon. He flirted with the three-point shot on a few occasions last season, but reality is that he just needs to hit the 15-20 footer at a respectable level to keep defenses honest. If Randle can do that, it will open up a lot more space for him to bully his way to the rim or kick out to open teammates. He is such a poor shooter–below 30 percent outside the paint–that it won’t be easy to get there, but requiring defenses to honor him is a must.
At the basket, Randle improved as a finisher after the All-Star break last year, and it appeared that he was finally beginning to adjust to shooting over long defenders. If he can develop one reliable go-to move with his right around the basket, like a simple jump-hook, it would do wonders. Simply the threat of doing something other than driving to his left would make him much more effective, and harder to stop.
Of course, this all sounds simple, but it isn’t. Randle has known for some time what his weaknesses are and has worked on improving them. He wants to be a better shooter, to use his right hand, and to be a positive in his team’s defensive schemes.
It just hasn’t happened yet, and that disappointment makes it all too easy to fall back on the analytics and break out the “bust” label. Randle is still a young player at 21, but with his inaugural season lost to injury, the Lakers have just two years left on his team-friendly rookie deal, then decisions need to be made. Already, the clock is ticking.
That said, it’s a new day in Los Angeles, with a new coach and new leaders. Kobe Bryant is gone, and in the void, there will be an opportunity. If Julius Randle can round out his game, even just a little, the Lakers will have a cornerstone piece upon which to rebuild their franchise.