It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had a rough stretch the past few seasons. The team has put together two injury-riddled campaigns that rank amongst the worst in Lakers history (in back to back seasons no less) and have not been particularly enjoyable to watch in a long time. As fans, we have been able to endure these losing seasons mainly by clinging to the hope of adding great young talent through the draft.
Whether you were a part of #TeamTank last season or not, there is no doubt that every Lakers fan should be happy with adding a player like D’Angelo Russell to the roster. However, while most fans may consider Russell – or perhaps, Jordan Clarkson who has already made strides in proving himself in the NBA – the next great LA superstar, I am here to put my vote in for a different blossoming star in Julius Randle. Randle possesses a unique skillset that we do not see often in the league, one loaded with equal amounts potential and question marks. He is not the tallest power forward, nor is he especially athletic. However, he makes up for that with exceptional strength and an explosive first step with the ball. He has incredible handles for a big man, yet he is only consistently comfortable attacking and finishing with his left hand. He has shown the ability to hit an occasional midrange jump shot but he has not become a full-fledged stretch four, quite yet. Now going into his second season, which is in effect his first due to the broken leg he suffered in his first professional game, Randle has become almost an afterthought due to the addition of another high-ceiling prospect in Russell and the coming-out party of Clarkson.
Having watched Randle in Summer League and preseason in the past two years, it has become evident to me that he has an incredibly high ceiling. As previously stated, I believe that Randle has more of a chance to become a star in the NBA than any of the other young players currently on the Lakers’ roster. However, in order to do that, he must capitalize on his gifts and improve on his deficiencies. In doing so, he can follow the footsteps of a few other NBA players who made or continue to make careers of similar skills to the ones that Randle possesses. What has become apparent to me, however, is that at his peak, Randle could become the perfect amalgam of these players.
Without further ado, here’s the three players whom Randle can learn from in shaping his rise to superstardom:
I’m starting out with the strangest comparison to Randle out of the three, so if you’re already screaming “WHAT?!” have no fear, I can explain. Thompson is not so much a similar player to Randle as one whom Julius can emulate. Like Randle, Thompson is not an exceptional athlete. He is not a finished product and even with all his improvements he is still mainly a raw prospect. Nevertheless, he has one elite skill that has made him a crucial part of a championship-caliber team: his rebounding – specifically on the offensive end. For his career, Thompson has averaged 10.6 rebounds and an outstanding 4.5 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes. Those are elite numbers, especially when considering the power forward has only been in the league for four years.
Randle, for his part, is a relative unknown in the rebounding category thus far. In his one year at Kentucky, he averaged 10.4 rebounds in about 31 minutes of action per game. However, while rebounding in college has historically correlated with rebounding in the NBA, that quantity may not necessarily translate to the pros. Randle’s short arms will do him no favors and he may not be enough of a leaper to make up for them. But he can use his strength to box out and give himself a chance for every rebound. Additionally, being able to play next to Roy Hibbert in his first full season should do wonders for the young man. Hibbert is not an especially adept rebounder, but he boxes out very effectively giving his teammates the ability to collect rebounds at a high clip. Having space open up around the rim due to Hibbert’s ability to do so should help Randle improve on his rebounding and make strides towards becoming a double-double machine.
What Randle can learn from Thompson in particular is the energy required to collect rebounds, especially on the offensive end of the floor. In his limited exhibition basketball, Randle has often seemed disinterested in working hard to get rebounds. Defensively, he loses his man and forgets to box out, making him prone to giving up offensive rebounds. Offensively, he tends to hang away from the rim and not crash the boards.
Watch Tristan Thompson here (at the 1:43 mark) as he uses his strength to literally throw Nikola Mirotic out of the way, tap the ball away from Pau Gasol’s waiting hands, and outrun Jimmy Butler to the corner to get the ball. That’s an exceptional example of the never-give-up attitude that Thompson possesses every time someone shoots the ball.
Thompson generally likes to pass the ball out to his teammates after an offensive rebound, as is evident in the rest of that video. That is fine, but he is foregoing an opportunity to get a bucket near the rim most times when he does that. Now imagine (without getting too excited) the guy who once did this getting the ball after an offensive rebound:
That should be a frightening thought for 29 other teams.
Here’s where things get interesting. Green, now an NBA champion, exploded onto the stage last year as a jack-of-all-trades for the Golden State Warriors. He turned his defensive excellence and on point playmaking into a role as the Warriors’ most important non-Steph Curry player. That defense is exactly why Randle should study Green’s game. The two have similar bodies, with Randle being slimmer and more athletic, and if Green can carve out a niche as a power forward, there is no reason why Randle should not be able to do the same. Green’s main claim to fame is his ability to play and (more importantly) defend every position. At any given point in a game, a coach can feel comfortable asking him defend the best player on the opposing team. That is a very valuable skill as positional flexibility becomes more and more an important part of basketball. Watch Draymond switch out on James Harden, stay low to contain his dribbles and stay close to his body to contest an eventual airball:
Now watch Draymond battle Paul Millsap in the post, use his length to prevent a pass to the cutting Korver and then contest a tough fadeaway:
Now watch Draymond sprint FROM THE THREE POINT LINE to stuff LeBron James and make him question his life choices:
(Side note: I really like Draymond)
Randle will never be an elite shot blocker. He may never be as good as Green on the defensive end of the floor. However, he can make huge strides in that department by studying Green’s game. Randle has the agility to stick with guards, the strength to fight back in the post, and enough athleticism to make some spectacular plays. What he will need to improve on is the mental aspect of his defense – that is: reading the offense and being at the right spot at the right time. Randle does not have the athleticism or length to make up for mental lapses. He has to be very solid in every aspect to become a good defender. He has the potential to become a Draymond Green-like player if he continues to improve on those aspects of the game.
And of course, I had to finish with the best and most important comparison of all. Nearly every Lakers fan who has watched Randle play has seen similarities with former Laker Lamar Odom. Odom holds a special place in my basketball heart (yes I distinguish between my hearts) as he was a crucial part of the 2009 and 2010 Lakers championship teams that I watched as I first began to gain an interest in the sport. Keep that in mind as you read the following, virtually cried upon, passage.
Odom’s greatest attribute in his time as a Laker was his playmaking. Much like Randle, he was great at handling the ball and he could beat nearly every power forward he went against one-on-one. While he could certainly score (both at the rim and from behind the arc) LO made his name creating for others. He was a rare talent as a big man who could really pass the ball, especially when paired with the equally-skilled Pau Gasol in the frontcourt. The pair’s passing is what really made Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense operate in an efficient manner, easing the load off of Kobe Bryant, and getting easy buckets for themselves and the rest of the team. Look at this gorgeous spin move and the subsequent impeccable pass to a rumbling Gasol:
(Side note number two: I literally screamed internally when I watched this.)
Look at the perfect placement on this alley-oop pass:
Odom was able to leverage his threat as both an outside shooter and a great driver to get opposing defenses to gravitate toward him, allowing him to set up teammates with perfect passes like this:
And he was so unselfish that he even passed it to guys who were not playing:
Why Harrison Vujacic was standing there is beyond me. And here’s where Randle can really shine. Odom was phenomenal in transition. So often he rebounded the ball and took it down court himself to either finish at the rim or set up his teammates. That can be where Randle really makes his mark, as early as this season. He has the same ability to go coast to coast and if he leverages that and uses it often, he can start wreaking havoc on unprepared and lazy defenses. You cannot look at the following two videos and tell me you do not see an uncanny resemblance between them.
(Side note number three: I am now squealing with joy and this may be unhealthy.)
The main thing to take away from this is that Julius Randle has almost limitless potential to be great. While he may never be the rebounder that Tristan Thompson is, nor the defender that Draymond Green is, nor the playmaker that Lamar Odom was, but he has the best chance of anyone to put all of those aspects together into a superstar-level player. It remains to be seen whether that actually happens or whether this is all a fantasy that I conjured up while watching loss after loss the previous two seasons. However, it is clear that there is reason for hope in Laker Land that all those losses did not come for nothing. That hope comes in the form of Julius Randle.