By Advith Sarikonda
Early last season, in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Julius Randle collected a rebound in traffic and immediately turned up the court, pushing the ball on the break. In the seconds before the play settled around him, when a defense is at its most vulnerable, Randle threaded a left-handed bounce pass to D’Angelo Russell cutting along the baseline for a layup.
Possessing that kind of dexterity and skill in a powerful, 6-foot-9 frame offers all sorts of directions and possibilities his game could grow. But on a roster with so many young, intriguing prospects who demand nurturing touches and minutes, the avenues through which to explore those possibilities might be limited.
So much of basketball roster building is resource management. Some players enter the NBA with a diverse range of promising skills, only to lose ground to more limited prospects whose functions fit better with the rest of the talent around him.
When Kobe Bryant retired, it opened up all sorts of resources in terms of cap space, touches, and minutes. But it also started the clock on evaluating the young cache of prospects the Lakers have accumulated over these lean years.
Randle is an intriguing talent, but with two young, quality high-usage guards and a rookie No. 2 overall pick whose best position might put him in direct competition with Randle for minutes, he might be the most questionable fit.
After missing virtually all of his first season due to injury, Randle approached his sophomore season as essentially a rookie. Neither spectacular nor terrible, Randle showcased his potential while also accentuating some of his most prominent deficiencies. While he showed potential as a rebounder and ball-handler in transition, Randle struggled in some fundamental aspects of what the young Lakers project to be predicating their offense upon for the foreseeable future—shooting, ball movement, and pick-and-roll play.
During his stint with the Golden State Warriors, newly hired Lakers head coach Luke Walton helped foster a style that was notorious for the plethora of open perimeter looks it created. While the Lakers don’t have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or Draymond Green, the City of Angels does have a set of competent shooters. Consecutive years of horrid play led to the draft-day acquisitions of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Brandon Ingram. Even Larry Nance, Jr, an uber-athletic four who is expected to back up Randle at the power forward position, flashed a newfound ability to stroke the ball from distance during summer league.
The value of Randle developing a reliable jumper transcends the mere development of his game; it also has a bearing on how the rest of the team plays while he is on the court.
Russell and Clarkson might be functional off the ball, but operate best when dictating the play. Any primary action that takes the ball out of their hands limits their ceiling. Ingram offers some spacing with his 3-point shooting, and Nance, with all his athleticism, can draw an extra defensive rotation as he dives to the rim. Other than the threat of his rebounding, Randle offers very little away from the ball to complement the rest of the young core.
Randle struggled mightily with his shot last year. Even when he was left wide open (per NBA.com, “wide open” is classified as uncontested with 6 or more feet of open space) on shots that extended 10 feet beyond the rim, he shot 28.6 percent. Perhaps more discouraging is these shots accounted for 12.6 percent of shots Randle took beyond 10 feet. In other words, defenders were not scared of leaving Randle open, and for good reason.
In the clip below, Randle’s lack of confidence in his jumper almost costs the team a possession on the offensive end, although it was eventually bailed out by a tough shot from Russell. Randle initially pump fakes on an uncontested look but ultimately wavers and gives the ball up with less than five seconds left on the shot clock. Though it didn’t matter in the end, the play shows that Randle’s lack of a jumper not only impeded his own development, but also that of the team’s offensive flow.
Shooting from distance wasn’t Randle’s only offensive concern. He didn’t fare well near the rim, either, where he showed an inability to finish with his off-hand. For a player who attempts to do most of his work near the basket, this really hurt Randle last season. On multiple occasions, he tried to compensate for his inability to finish with his non-dominant hand by forcing tough, contested lay-ups that otherwise would’ve been much simpler. When he did try to finish with his right hand, he was not met with much success.
Julius Randle’s lack of success in the pick-and-roll is another issue that has to be addressed going forward. Considering Walton’s system is expected to involve multiple pick-and-rolls, Randle will need to improve as the non-ball handler in such actions. Last season, he only ranked in the 10th percentile in points per possession generated as the roll man. Compound the expected abundance of pick and rolls in Walton’s offense with the fact that Russell does some of his best work as the ball-handler in them, and it’s imperative that Randle works on that aspect of his game.
Compounding his difficulties scoring the ball, he has a tendency to resort to “hero ball.” Consider this: Curry, arguably the best isolation player in the NBA, only found himself in iso situations 10.0 percent of the time, registering in the 94.2 percentile nonetheless. Yet, Randle sported an outrageous isolation frequency of 21.2 percent (almost double that of Curry’s), despite the fact that he registered in the 30.2 percentile in that department. Randle’s isolation frequency was also higher than other great iso scorers in the league—including Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard. As one would expect, Randle registered in a much lower isolation percentile than all four aforementioned players, despite being isolated much more in sheer quantity.
While Byron Scott should be to blame for a considerable part of this unflattering frequency of isolation ball, Randle also deserves some culpability. As difficult as it may have been to play within a team construct in Scott’s offense, there is no excuse for him to be isolating on nearly one-fifth of his offensive possessions—especially when the likes of Clarkson and Russell only isolated 10.0 percent and 5.9 percent of the time respectively.
With all of that being said, there are some extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into account when evaluating Randle’s first full season in the NBA.
One of them, as alluded to earlier, is his former coach. As a result of antiquated offensive schemes that relegated Randle to a last resort on the offensive end, Randle often received the ball with little to no time left to create. An insane 23.9 percent of Randle’s shots came with seven seconds or less on the shot clock, on which he shot 37.7 percent. He was often left to fend for himself against defenders who knew he couldn’t shoot as a direct byproduct of the stagnancy perpetrated by Byron Scott’s iso-heavy schemes.
In the following play, Randle is asked to bail out the team with 8 seconds left on the shot clock while nobody else seems to know where to go without the ball. It appears as though Kobe initially tries to set a screen, and subsequently asks for the ball when things go south. In the end, Randle is stuck deciding what to do with the ball and commits a turnover in the process.
On the other hand, Randle shot 70 percent with 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock, suggesting he’s an up-tempo player whose skill set simply was not utilized well by Scott. Under Walton, the hope is that Randle will have more opportunities to play fast and run with freedom and aggression; both elements of offense that were sorely lacking under Scott’s stewardship.
So all of this begs the question, can the Lakers count on Randle to be the power forward of the future?
As is the case with most things in sports, it depends. If Randle can learn to hit jumpers on a consistent basis, finish with his right hand, play within a team framework, and improve in pick and roll situations, he may be the answer. It’s a very real possibility that Walton’s improved offensive schemes will hide some of Randle’s deficiencies while playing to his strengths. But until that actually happens, it’s fair to question how the 21-year-old will fare in a league that is relying more and more on the very areas that needs to improve upon the most.
Though his game—much like that of his teammates—has some major flaws, Randle did showcase some remarkable improvement as the season progressed. He dropped his first triple-double in a matchup against the Denver Nuggets on March 25th, showcasing legitimate playmaking abilities and an ability to spot the open man. Likewise, in spite of playing in a stagnant offense, Randle still managed to average a double-double thanks to impressive rebounding ability. In fact, Randle has amassed more rebounds thus far in his career than has any other player from his draft class, despite the fact that he missed nearly an entire season.
There are many ways Randle’s game can go. He may end up becoming an elite rebounder whose energy and hustle ignite the team. He could also become a crafty sixth man who can run in transition and handle the ball. The talent was evident, if only in flashes. But with five players sharing one basketball on the court, resources are limited. Every touch Walton allocates to explore one part of Randle’s game is another that don’t go to three other players the front office has identified as high priority prospects, and vice versa.
Seeing Randle dominate the glass and leading the break offers glimpses of tantalizing possibilities. Of course, the picture becomes more muddled when imagining his weaknesses alongside the rest of the roster.
In that, Randle’s year isn’t solely about seeing what he can be as a player, but who he needs to be as a Laker.
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