Season in Review: Julius Randle

In a new short series for Lakers Outsiders, I will be reviewing all of the young players currently on the Lakers’ roster who project to be part of the team’s future going forward. I’ll be looking at their play in the 2015-16 season as well as predicting how they will fare next year with development and a new coaching staff.

In recent weeks, no Lakers player has been more divisive than Julius Randle. The power forward is entering his third season in the league but is effectively a sophomore after missing all but one game of his rookie season.

Randle has the tools to be a unique player. A bruising big man with the ball skills of a guard, the former Kentucky Wildcat has the type of untapped potential any coach would like to mold into his own vision. On the other hand, Julius has plenty of flaws that have thus far limited how high his ceiling has been and could be.

The question with Randle in this third season will be whether he can improve on those flaws enough to prove once again why he was touted as one of the best prospects in his draft class.

Randle is a bit of an enigma offensively. He flashes skills that are uncommon for players of his size yet lacks some of the more necessary abilities to make him an efficient player.

Perhaps the biggest issue for the power forward is his finishing ability around the rim. The lefty big man struggled mightily in finishing with his less dominant hand. His lack of confidence shows in his unwillingness to even attempt such shots.

Too many times last season, Randle would beat his man but forcefully attempt a wild lay-up with his left hand instead of taking the more logical course of action and using his right. That needs to improve for Randle to be an efficient offensive player.

Lacking a jump shot, Randle has to at least be able to finish at the rim efficiently. Last season, he simply did not do that, with an effective field goal percentage of 49.9 within ten feet of the basket. For comparison’s sake, rookie Larry Nance, Jr. had an eFG of 65.5 percent on those same shots.

The aforementioned jump shot is another key reason for pessimism about Randle. Simply put, the power forward showed no consistency in that aspect of his game. He was one of the worst shooters in the entire league, with his 48.2 percent true shooting percentage the seventh-worst in the league among players who played the requisite minutes to qualify.

Fortunately, this was something that improved as the year progressed. From November to March, Randle’s shooting progressively got better culminating in an actually very solid 47.9 percent from the field in March. That number took a giant dive for the worst in April, which is a little scary, but could also be a product of a fairly small sample.

Nevertheless, the in-season improvement from Randle is promising even if the year-long numbers are terrifying. The hope now is that that improvement carries into the offseason.

We have not seen any game action from Randle since mid-May. What we have seen is some cell-phone footage of the forward in Team USA scrimmages and practices. That is obviously a limited sample in a non-competitive setting. However, seeing Randle confidently attempt jump shots from the mid-range and behind the arc has at least been reason for some optimism.

Both the finishing and shooting from Randle were affected at least in part by the coaching and system. L.A. was the worst three-point shooting team in the league at just 31.7 percent last season, which led to truly terrible floor spacing.

In addition to the poor shooting, the Lakers succumbed to iso-ball far too often. The lack of ball and player movement led to terrible shot quality in general for the Lakers, but perhaps even more for Randle.

That was most apparent during the stretch in which Julius played off the bench. Often forced to be the offensive hub in a unit with even less talented players, Randle’s shot quality plummeted. It’s no surprise then that he shot a miserable 37.2 percent when coming off the bench compared to a better, albeit unspectacular, 44.7 percent when starting.

That all said, his shooting cannot simply be attributed to poor coaching and a poor system. Those factors certainly affected his efficiency but that does not change the fact that he was not a good shooter in general. A new coach will not automatically fix that.

What the new coaching staff can help Randle with, however, is his passing. Among the traits that make fans appreciate Julius most is his passing ability. Unfortunately, he struggled mightily with tunnel vision for the vast majority of the season. Randle’s drives to the rim nearly always featured a shot or a turnover.

Randle had a fairly high assist percentage of 11 percent last year. Among players listed at a nice 6-9 or taller, Randle’s assist percentage was 27th. behind such visionaries as Mo Speights.

There are higher expectations for Randle in this respect due to the consideration that he has guard skills. But considering the Lakers had the lowest assist rate in the league, Randle’s numbers in this respect should be commended.

More importantly, much like his shooting, Randle improved heavily as the season went on. In the final seven games of the season, for example Randle’s assist percentage soared to 17.1 percent, which would have been good for sixth in the entire league over a full season.

It’s easy to see that Randle can only hope to improve as a passer under the new coaching staff. Luke Walton will be bringing a system much more designed around player movement and ball movement leading to more passing opportunities for Randle. The power forward has shown the ability to make passes; the question is whether he will consistently have the vision to find the appropriate lanes.

For example, when the Lakers isolated Randle but moved off the ball, he was able to make the appropriate play:

julius-randle-assist-1

That’s a slow-developing play with poor spacing and the Lakers were still able to get a good shot out of it. While not a difficult read to make, Randle’s timing and placement is still important here. It gives Roy Hibbert ample time and space to take an open mid-range shot.

Sometimes, Randle’s passing requires just making the simple play. He did not do that early in the year but with more experience, he improved in that regard. Take this play against the Pelicans:

julius-randle-assist-2

Randle draws attention by attacking Luke Babbitt (the GOAT) off the dribble. With Jordan Clarkson’s man helping one pass away and off of the corner, the decision is an easy one. Nevertheless, it’s not one that Randle would make with regularity early in the season.

At times, Randle was even able to make more difficult reads and passes as he did earlier in that same game:

julius-randle-assist-3

Randle draws the double team and the subsequent rotation by Clarkson’s man to box out Sacre. Instead of forcing an ill-advised shot, Randle reads the defense well, uses a fake and a spin to shake himself free, and then drop the fantastic baseline pass to the weakside corner. That’s a high-level play from someone who was effectively a rookie last year.

Defense is another area of concern for Randle. Simply said, he was one of the worst parts of the worst defense in the league. He will almost certainly improve from last season to the next. But the question is whether or not he can at any point become a good defender.

I have my doubts about that part of Randle’s game, but he does at least possess some physical tools that can help become less of a liability. Randle’s short wingspan will not do him any favors. However, he has quick feet that will help him switch out on perimeter players (a very useful skill) and the strength to battle with post players.

Randle needs to improve his instincts and his effort on that end of the floor. A new coaching staff should help him learn and at just 21 years old, he has plenty of time to improve. He may never become a great defender, but he can at least remove the label of being a liability defensively.

The numbers don’t paint the most pretty picture of Julius Randle. The Lakers were by far better with him on the bench than on the court. In fact, they were outscored by more than 15 points per 100 possessions when Randle was on the floor. That is damning evidence of his lack of positive impact last season.

The good news is that he is still very young and has already shown signs of growth. His shooting improved over the course of last season, even if it still leaves much to be desired. His passing and vision also improved bringing hope that that will continue to be a huge part of his game.

There are still severe limitations in Randle’s game and until we see him in game action, we will not know how those flaws have developed. If those issues are fixed, at least to some extent, the Lakers will have a high-potential player with unique skills. Randle has mentioned that he has been watching film of Draymond Green and although it’s not wise to compare everyone to Draymond, Randle fits the mold in many ways.

If Randle does not improve by any significant amount, it’s easy to see that his ceiling is much lower. In effect, he would become the prototypical energy big, best used off the bench to grab rebounds, push the pace, and do a little bit of scoring. That rebounding is about the only thing we know for sure that Randle can do well at this level (his rebound percentage of 19.5 was 13th in the NBA).

The overarching conclusion that can be made about Julius Randle is that there cannot be any conclusions made about Julius Randle. While we were treated to the show that Larry Nance, Jr. put on during Summer League, many began to wonder out loud whether Randle is even better than the second-year pro.

It’s a fair discussion and one that has merit after seeing the improvements that Nance,  has made. But we also haven’t seen Randle’s improvements yet and it’s easy to forget the amount of talent he truly possesses.

The fact of the matter is that Randle may have the biggest difference between floor and ceiling in any young prospect. At this point in his career, he must be looked at as a realistically flawed player. There should also be optimism that he could become something better several years in the future.

For now, all we can do is sit back and watch.

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