Offseason improvements can make Julius Randle an impact player

Coming into his Freshman year of college, Julius Randle was highly coveted by some as the top prospect for the 2014 draft. He was an uber-athletic power forward who was as quick as guards, and that led to him being one of the top prospects alongside Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

But as the NCAA season went on, it was easy to see the holes in his game that were covered up by his sheer dominance in high school. While draft experts and GM’s loved his potential as a ball handling power forward, his jump shot (or lack thereof) hurt him. He wasn’t fond of shooting and when he actually took a jump shot  you could see why. His jumper lacked key components that you want to see and it hurt his draft stock. Additionally, his lack of fundamentals on defense and the exclusive use of his left hand when driving to the rim dropped him on teams’ big boards.

Despite all these flaws, he still put up 15/10 in college, but it wasn’t enough to entice teams to draft him 1-6. Randle ended up dropping all the way to 7th to the Lakers and they were ecstatic to be able to draft a player who many thought to be in the running for the #1 pick. They loved his skill set and thought he was a steal. In comparison to some of the other  lottery picks in the 2014 draft, he was.

But during summer league and preseason games, Randle didn’t play very well. He got a decent amount of rebounds and points but he wasn’t very efficient, and everyone knows what happened next.

Fourteen minutes into his NBA career he broke his right tibia driving to the rim in a freak accident. He missed his entire rookie season due to the injury and couldn’t even work on his shooting like others do after injuries. Due to the severity of the injury, he couldn’t play any basketball which led to his jump shot getting even worse.

He ended up recovering from the injury with no signs of problems and was back on track. Randle started the 2015-’16 season as the starting forward, but many people were disappointed in his performance, comparing his stats to other young prospects to say he isn’t good or will be good.

Sure, Julius Randle didn’t shoot 54% from the field like Karl-Anthony Towns did. He shot 43%.

He obviously wasn’t going to make 35% of his three point attempts like D’Angelo Russell. He made 27%.

He didn’t come close to putting up  6.5 assists per game like Elfrid Payton did. He had 1.8.

And he wasn’t a defensive presence like  Justice Winslow, as he was subpar on defense.

But that doesn’t prove Randle is a bad player. Coming out of college he had tools that made him very special. He was an athletic PF who could get up and grab rebounds, score in the paint, and handle the ball with play-making potential.

And during his first, full season he showed those talents off, as he averaged 14.5 points, 13.1 rebounds per 36 minutes. Only twelve players in league history have averaged those numbers at the age of 21 or younger. Some of the others to do that include Shaq, Moses Malone, Kevin Love and Andre Drummond. Randle joins more exclusive company when factoring in his 2.3 assists per 36 minutes. Only four other players from that list have accomplished that feat. 

That is an incredibly impressive list that includes two Hall of Famers and two superstars. I’m not trying to insinuate that Randle will be a superstar, but rather to use those examples to show how special of a season he had.

On top of that, Randle is already an elite rebounder in the league, as he was top-ten in the entire league in rebounds per game as a bona-fide rookie. He was the only one in the entire NBA to average more than ten rebounds a game, without playing at least 30 minutes per game except for Hassan Whiteside. In fact, Randle’s 19.5 total rebound percentage was 11th in the entire league among players who played at least 1000 minutes. And he was one of only two non-centers to be in the top ten in the NBA in rebounds per game.

Despite all of this this, some people still think he had a bad season – and they have their reasons. He has the same strengths that he had in college but also the same weaknesses . He ended his first season with a 43 percent field goal percentage. For a power forward, that number is atrocious. In fact, his FG% was very similar to D’Angelo Russell’s who ended the year with 320 three point attempts.

Another criticism of Randle is his lack of defense. He isn’t a really big forward and his wingspan is lackluster to say the least.  So from the start, some thought he would be a bad defender, and he was. Randle was okay with on ball defense but his off ball defense was really poor. He doesn’t possess the best instincts, and he would often lose focus on the defensive end when the ball wasn’t near him.

On top of that, Randle had a bad jump shot last season. Some people believe he will not be a really good scorer if he cannot develop a reliable jumper. That reasoning is understandable. His jump shot isn’t very good and it has a notable hitch, so it’s not very smooth and isn’t in one motion like other players. In today’s NBA you want your team to space the floor, and having a power forward that at least has a decent shot is huge for teams. It opens up so many more options for scoring and helps others around him.

The one thing that concerns me the most is that he used his left hand exclusively. The majority of Randle’s plays at the rim were used his left hand. Almost every hook, layup, floater etc was shot with his left hand. There were many times where he would position himself for an easy layup with his right hand but end up using his left hand, and for the majority of those attempts he would either miss or get blocked. As a player who scores close to 50% of his points around the rim this is more of a concern than his lack of a jump shot. If he wants to become an elite finisher he needs to start using his right hand when scoring.

Despite his evident flaws, I still believe he can develop a lot more. Media and fans alike have criticized him for his flaws, but I think we’re missing a very important fact. This was Randle’s first year playing in the NBA and historically, rookies don’t play well when it comes to defense and they are not usually efficient. Most first year players struggle and usually we just let it slide because they’re rookies. Rookies are still adjusting to the speed of the game and the physicality difference. But sophomores have more expected from them. They’re second year players and many expect them to have adjusted to how the NBA is played. Because Julius Randle is technically a sophomore he gets treated as one, and is expected to not have the difficulties that rookies have.

This is not really fair considering he missed all of his rookie year, so he didn’t get the same opportunity to adjust to the speed and physicality of the game. The side-effect of this is he goes 100% a lot during games. He needs to learn how to be more smooth and to slow down. In baseball, a pitcher won’t throw a fastball every single time. Sometimes he will throw a change-up in order to trick the batter by throwing slower pitches. The same idea applies to basketball. Changing speeds is a very valuable skill and will allow him to use his athleticism to his full advantage.

As for his on court improvement, Randle started to show some as the season went on. He started to become more of a playmaker as in his last 12 games, Randle had 5 games of 4+ assists. His field goal percentage went up as well, from 41% before the all-star break to 45% after it. Similarly, his free throw percentage went from 70% to 74%. A 45% field goal percentage and a 74% free throw percentage do not seem very good and without context they aren’t great numbers. But when you think about how much he improved it makes you hopeful for what he can become. 

Randle had his problems but I think he can improve a lot. His athleticism makes him a mismatch for almost every power forward in the league, as his first step is something few can match. If he’s up against a faster forward he’s going to be stronger than them, and if he’s up against a stronger forward he’s going to be faster than him. His strength was praised by Metta World Peace who once said “this kid is super strong“. This can also lead to improvements in his defense as he is quick on his feet and is really strong. With a good coach, I believe he can become at least an average defender.

I actually believe that Julius being in Luke Walton’s system will benefit him greatly. Last year, he was used in isolation plays 23% of the time he had the ball. That was twice as many isolation plays as Lou Williams was involved in. In Luke’s system, that number will be dialed down, help Randle be in better situations for plays. Another side-effect of being in the new system is that he will handle the ball more in transition. Randle’s ball-handling in transition may mirror the way the Warriors use multiple players in these instances.

My hopes for how Randle improves before the next season is an improved jump shot, a willingness to use his right hand more, and the ability to change speeds often.

If he can start to use his right hand more often he will open up a lot more opportunities to score at the rim. I’m not expecting him to suddenly become a stretch 4, but I want him to start making wide open threes. If he can make wide open threes, it will make defenders respect him more, enabling him more room to drive to the rim. I truly believe he can improve his jump shot as his free throw percentage is good for a first year PF. As for using his right hand, it’s a more simple adjustment than his jump shot as it’s a smaller technique change.

All in all Julius Randle is still a lottery pick who is coming off his first NBA season. As with every first year player, he had problems but he also showed promise for what he can be in the future. He has a lot of potential and is extremely athletic, so if he works hard on his weaknesses and improves on his strengths, he can be a very special player.

 

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