It’s Still Too Early To Give Up On Julius Randle

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Julius Randle is a former lottery pick who has improved each season he’s been in the NBA. And yet, there’s a chance he won’t be on the Lakers past this season for reasons that have little to do with how he has developed over the last four seasons.

The primary reason? The Lakers plan to clear as much cap space as possible to give them an opportunity to sign LeBron James and Paul George in the offseason, meaning they’ll have to move on from most of the players currently on their roster. Some of those decisions won’t be difficult for them to make — Corey Brewer, Brook Lopez, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all on expiring contracts and are unlikely to return — but the Lakers might have to part ways with a young prospect like Randle, who has a cap hold of $12.4 million as an unrestricted free agent, to make room for two superstars.

If that’s the case, there are a handful of teams that should consider acquiring Randle. The situation will be important, though, because he isn’t the type of player who can be plugged into any system. One of the knocks on him coming into the 2013 NBA Draft was that was a center stuck in the body of a power forward, and he hasn’t done much in the years since to change that narrative. Of the 259 baskets Randle has made this season, 239 have come directly in the paint. He has only attempted 44 shots from midrange (of which he has made 12) and he’s spent even less of his time on the perimeter. According to NBA.com, 146 forwards and 26 centers have made more 3-pointers than Randle this season.

The combination means his defender can help off of him whenever he doesn’t have the ball in the paint — as Tyler Zeller has no shame in doing on the following possession — which can hurt a team’s spacing in a big way. It’s still possible that Randle develops some semblance of a jump shot in the future, but it doesn’t seem as likely as it once did based on how little he has improved in that regard since he was drafted.

Fortunately for Randle, there’s been less of a need for him to step out of the paint lately. While he was seen as a power forward coming out of Kentucky, he’s only logged a quarter of his minutes at that position this season. (It’s quite the change from his second and third season with the Lakers when 69.0 percent of his minutes came at power forward). The rest of his time has come at center, and it has helped him play to his strengths as an offensive player.

Randle, for example, has generated 14.9 percent of his offense as the roll man this season. He’s not the most explosive big man in the league, but it hasn’t prevented him from ranking in the 78.6 percentile with 1.24 points per pick-and-roll possession. He has good hands and enough athleticism to provide some vertical spacing at the rim. He can read and react to the defense, too, which separates him from the more traditional centers in the league who struggle to make plays in traffic.

Further separating himself from those centers is his ability to create his own shot off the dribble. Randle isn’t the most efficient 1-on-1 scorer at his position, but he’s at least shown the potential to score against different types of defenders. If a smaller player switches onto him, he’ll take them to the post and use his strength advantage to bulldoze his way to the basket. If he’s matched up with a slower-footed center, he’ll face-up to the basket and use his quickness advantage to blow by them off the dribble. Despite the fact that he still heavily favors going to his left, Randle has enough diversity in his game to expose mismatches when teams switch.

Randle has flashed some of that potential in the past, though playing him more at center increases the amount of space he has to work with in the halfcourt. It’s why he’d continue to benefit from playing alongside someone in the frontcourt who is comfortable spacing the floor out to the three-point line because it gives Randle free reign inside the perimeter to do these sorts of things:

These unique tools make Randle a handful for teams to deal with in transition as well. Whereas most big men immediately pass the ball to one of the guards following a defensive rebound, Randle can push the ball from one end of the court to the other by himself. He can also fill the lane as a rim-runner, relying on his quickness to beat opposing big men up the court.

It’s manifested into Randle scoring 19.8 percent of his points in transition at an above average rate of 1.14 points per possession. For perspective, the only big men averaging more points per game in transition than Randle this season are DeMarcus Cousins, who recently suffered a season-ending injury, and Anthony Davis.

Being a decent pick-and-roll, isolation and transition scorer helps Randle make up for some of his glaring weaknesses on offense, especially when he’s surrounded with the right talent. He finds himself in a similar situation on the other end of the floor, although he’s better-suited functioning as a power forward, not as a center, on defense.

Randle’s greatest strength on defense is his ability to switch onto smaller players. According to NBA.com, nobody has defended more isolation possessions than the Lakers big man this season, an impressive feat considering he ranks in the 62.3 percentile by allowing only 0.83 points per possession. That stat alone doesn’t mean he’s an elite defender — Draymond Green, last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, ranks in the 27.1 percentile this season by allowing 1.04 points per isolation possession — but it speaks to how disruptive Randle can be when he’s matched up with some of the NBA’s best scorers.

Randle showcased his full defensive potential in a game against the Wizards in the opening month of the season. He switched onto John Wall and Bradley Beal — two All-Star guards who are amongst the league leaders in isolation scoring — several times throughout the game and successfully slowed them down on an island. The following sequence is a particularly good example of what Randle is capable of when he’s locked in. Randle keeps Wall in front of him by moving his feet, stays on the ground when Wall tries to get him up in the air with a shot fake and then times his jump perfectly to block Wall’s shot as time expires.

Randle even had moments guarding Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in a four-point loss to the Warriors a few weeks later. The shot Durant misses in the video below is one he can make, but Randle keeps him off the 3-point line, prevents him from getting into the paint and contests a pull-up from just inside the perimeter in the closing seconds of a tied game. Outside of blocking Durant’s shot, the Lakers couldn’t have expected Randle to have defended Durant any better.

Ideally, Randle wouldn’t be the full-time anchor of a defense. Even though he has improved as a rim protector this season — opponents are shooting slightly worse against him in the paint and he’s making more plays at the rim than he ever has before — it’s never been his forte. It doesn’t preclude him from playing center, but he was never projected as being someone who can be a full-time center in the NBA due to his physical limitations. A team would therefore get the most out of him defensively by starting him as a power forward and using him as a small ball center depending on the matchups.

That push and pull between Randle being better suited as a power forward on defense and a center on offense explains why he is a polarizing prospect because it requires him to be paired with someone who can function as a center on defense and a power forward on offense. Seeing as those players exist — Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and Anthony Davis immediately come to mind — Randle would be wise to target one of their teams if this is indeed his last season with the Lakers.