Julius Randle's improvement as a player, fit with this roster, and contract situation gives himself a murky future on the Lakers.
With now three (technically two) years under his belt, Julius Randle has shown to be a very talented yet unconventional player in today's NBA. In this league, bigs that cannot shoot 3s or protect the rim are not highly coveted. However, given the dichotomy of his development as a player along with the roster construction versus his contract situation, "The Big Caesar" has an intriguingly ambiguous future with the franchise going forward.
First, let's start with how he has progressed as a player. Discounting his rookie year in which he played 14 minutes and fractured his leg, last year Randle improved upon his points per game from 11.3 to 13.2, effective field goal percentage from 43.5% to 49.9%, true shooting percentage from 48.2% to 54.3%, and assists per game from 1.8 to 3.6 despite only increasing his usage rate slightly from 21.2% to 21.4%. Randle definitely improved a lot from his first full year to last year. Given that he will be 23 years old this fall, he is still young enough to keep improving his game.
(All statistics are from Basketball Reference.)
In addition to his offense, while still not quite a good defensive player, Julius showed flashes of how he can potentially be a solid defender. He has excellent lateral quickness to defend pick n' rolls when guarding the screener. In addition, he had some key chase-down blocks intermittently throughout the year. When his motor is running at full throttle, he is very engaged and becomes an impact player on that end of the floor. He struggles to guard shooters because he gets lost leading to late closeouts. The problem is his motor is very inconsistent and it is usually caused by confidence. When he is getting buckets early, he feels involved so he plays harder and is more locked in on both ends throughout the game. However, if he does not feel involved early or is in a shooting slump, he is usually very lackadaisical.
This leads to the roster construction. Lonzo Ball is an incredible outlet passer and is one of the best guard prospects I have ever seen at making the simple passes. Ball's game is about everything easy: he wants to get an open 3 or a layup whether he does it himself, or a teammate does it instead. His ability to push the pace and find open guys will make them play harder because everyone is involved. The more they move, the more open they get, and Ball will find them for easy points. This is why Randle will probably have a more consistent motor next season. Ball will push the pace, and it will make Randle run the lanes harder. Last year, he did not run the lanes hard with consistency because if he was not handling the ball, he was disinterested until the offense got into its set in the half court. This will increase Randle's points and field goal percentage because he will get more easy layups. He has also improved a lot as a passer so that Randle's assists could also increase. In a fast break situation with numbers, Julius has shown a willingness to make the extra pass. It is not insane to think that he can put up between four or five assists per game.
Realistically next season, we can expect Julius Randle to put up anywhere between 15-18 points, 8-10 rebounds, and 3-5 assists per game while having an effective field goal percentage of at least 52 percent. His defense could also be pretty good. He will probably never be a rim protector, but he will not be a slouch. He should be able to rotate well off the ball as a roamer and defend pick n' rolls with intensity. When you also factor in his weight loss and decrease in body fat, he should be more nimble on both ends which will allow him to make plays more.
Despite all of the development Julius might show, his contract situation makes his future murky. The Lakers seem primed to fetch all-star free agents like LeBron James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and DeMarcus Cousins next summer. Randle is a restricted free agent that summer and will probably be in for a big payday. If General Manager Rob Pelinka and President Magic Johnson want to get two of those big names, they will need to shed the salaries of Julius Randle and Luol Deng and possibly that of Jordan Clarkson as well. This is why it should not surprise any of us if Randle is traded before the deadline this upcoming season. However, it will be interesting especially if he balls out. Most teams are reluctant to sell high on young, up-and-coming players because of their potential. Randle will likely be a great blend of "very good right now" and "potential all-star down the line." It is possible he is packaged along with Luol Deng for an expiring contract and possibly a draft pick. Maybe if the Pelicans' season goes south and Randle and Clarkson play well, the Lakers could try to build a package around them for Anthony Davis although the Pels could possibly find a better offer elsewhere, but we said the same about the Pacers trading Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
Julius Randle's development will be interesting and exciting for fellow Laker fans. His natural improvement and fit with this roster is intriguing, but his future because of his contract situation is somewhat murky. While it will be tough to bank on a potential 34-year-old LeBron James, Paul George, and youngsters Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram to win a title, it will not stop Magic and Pelinka in their pursuit to bring the Lakers back to relevancy.