Los Angeles Lakers power forward Julius Randle is something of an enigma. At 6’9” and weighing 250 pounds, he possesses a unique combination of strength and skill that may be just as much of a blessing as it is a curse.
During his college days, Randle could rely on being bigger, stronger, and more athletic than his opponents, allowing him to bully his way to the rim whenever he wanted. There was simply no need to shoot jump shots when the basket was just a lightning-quick spin move away.
However, in the NBA, where nimble giants block his path, Randle has had to adjust, and it hasn’t been easy for him to evolve into the kind of rangy, multi-faceted forward that the modern game demands.
There are breathtaking moments when he reminds everyone just how gifted he is, showcasing speed, quickness, and ball handling that allows him to burst down the floor like a force of nature. Yet, those moments of brilliance have been too few and far between.
He has looked unstoppable in one game, then incredibly flawed in the next, leaving many to wonder which player – the unstoppable force or the square peg – is really him. As a result, Randle has become one of the most difficult players to evaluate in the league, and sometime before he hits free agency next summer, the Lakers are going to have to decide exactly where they stand on the talented big man.
Thanks to a lost rookie year due to injury, Los Angeles has only had two seasons to truly evaluate Randle’s growth, which hasn’t been an easy task thanks to his up-and-down play. Furthermore, it was Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss who drafted Randle, and it’s always possible that the new sheriffs in town, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, don’t have the same fondness for him that their predecessors did.
We already saw how that story played out for D’Angelo Russell.
Complicating matters, the Lakers hope to have enough cap space next summer to sign two max-level free agents while still retaining building blocks Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. In order to do so, simple math says they will likely have to part ways with Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jordan Clarkson, Brook Lopez, and Luol Deng, though there is a faint hope that perhaps one player could remain from that group.
As we discussed in-depth on the LN Podcast, retaining Randle while still obtaining the cap room necessary to sign a pair of superstars will be an extremely difficult and costly endeavor, but it will be up to him to use this season to prove he is worth it.
In order to do so, he will have to overcome a number of issues, including mental mistakes on the defensive end, his lack of a right hand when finishing, and an average wingspan that hinders his ability to protect the rim.
That said, the biggest hurdle for Randle to clear if he’s going to truly blossom has to be his outside shooting. His handle and quick first step allow him to consistently beat his man off the dribble, but that skill is somewhat nullified because teams simply pack the paint like In-N-Out at lunchtime, gladly giving up the outside jumper.
Fortunately, there is reason to believe that he can improve in this area, and in fact, he is already doing it.
During his de facto rookie campaign, Randle would often barrel into the teeth of the defense, where he would struggle to finish over long-limbed opponents. Last season he largely countered defenses who put walls in front of him by stepping up his passing game and kicking the ball out to open teammates.
His assists jumped from 1.8 per game in 2015-2016 to a whopping 3.6 last season. He still had major problems scoring when his shot was contested, shooting an abysmal 35 percent from a distance of 5-9 feet, but his improved passing was still a welcome sight. Plus, while Randle’s short jumper was still atrocious, he actually showed massive improvement last season both in his overall shooting percentage and his decision making.
When he stepped back to the 10-14 foot range he connected on 46 percent of his shots, while hitting 41 percent from 15-19 feet. He shot just 26 and 21 percent from those distances the season before, which underscores just how much work he has put into developing his shot.
Long-limbed defenders bother him, but in the mid-range he often finds the space to get his shot off cleanly, and it makes a world of difference.
Furthermore, Randle took less than half as many shots from 15-19 feet last season than he did the year before. He’s being more selective about when he shoots from outside the paint, and it’s making him a more efficient and intelligent scorer. The bruiser is slowly adding a bit of savvy to his game, and it’s paying off.
He’s still no Dirk Nowitzki and never will be, but Randle is on the cusp of being a moderate threat from outside the paint, and when that happens, his ceiling will go way up.
If Randle can force defenders to step out to contest his mid-range jumper while help defenders have to stay at home on shooters due to his passing ability, Randle’s whirling drives into a gauntlet of defenders at the rim will suddenly become uncontested strolls, especially when he shares the floor with spacing godsend Brook Lopez and passing wunderkind Lonzo Ball.
He isn’t there yet, but all signs point to Randle being on the cusp of something big. He’s in the best shape of his career, playing alongside teammates who will bring the best out of him, and if he can get his jumper find bottom just a bit more often, the floor is going to open up for him.
All of this is coming just in time for Randle to earn a new contract next summer. The conditions are perfect for a breakout season, and if he does, he just might make the Lakers think twice about letting him walk out the door next summer.