The Delayed Development of Julius Randle: Why This Off-Season Will Be Critical for the Lakers' Sophomore Forward


By the time the season is over, the 2016 Los Angeles Lakers campaign will go down as the least successful in team history. For the third year in a row, the Lakers will be praying on ping-pong balls, hoping for another lottery reward to add to their coffers, already stocked with several consolation prizes from previous poor seasons.

But the season hasn’t been without its own silver linings, even before the likes of Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram hopefully finds their way onto the roster. The front office’s gamble on D’Angelo Russell finally seems to be paying off, after the playmaker’s poor start at the beginning of the year. Head coach Byron Scott’s tactics, though undoubtedly controversial, have hardened the chip on the rookie point guard’s shoulder, that same chip that gave Russell the aggressive edge that convinced decision makers Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak to select him in the 2015 NBA Draft over highly-touted big man Jahlil Okafor.

The Lakers closed out the first round of that same draft with another surprising move, selecting Larry Nance, Jr. with the 27th pick. At the time, the selection was seen as a stretch by some analysts; despite his impressive performance at the draft combine, his lifelong battle with Crohn’s Disease, bout with mononucleosis his senior year, and torn ACL in 2014 all gave NBA executives pause about selecting him. But the Lakers saw potential for him to turn his defensive versatility and mature offensive game into a legitimate NBA role player. And that’s exactly what he’s done, even improving his mid-range jumper to give himself more utility on the offensive side of the ball.

Similarly, Jordan Clarkson proved to be worth a lot more than his 46th pick in the 2014 draft. Clarkson has been arguably the Lakers' most consistent offensive player this year, after bursting onto the scene after last year’s All-Star Break. The tutelage of Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant rubbed off, and he hasn’t taken a step back this year.

But before Nance, before Russell, and even before Clarkson, the Lakers drafted who everyone thought would be their biggest prize to date. For all the toiling and the records in futility the Lakers set in the 2014 season, the team was awarded the seventh pick in the lottery, and with it came Kentucky forward Julius Randle.

Randle has certainly shown the ability to play at the NBA level, and even show value at the seventh pick in a 2014 draft that lacked star potential past that point. But he hasn’t been the force Lakers fans thought their team was selecting. In fact, while Randle has excelled in the areas identified as his strengths pre-draft, he’s shown barely any progression in his weaknesses.

Julius Randle’s profile on Draft Express shows that since before the draft, scouts recognized that Randle’s dominant rebounding skill; he also showed a propensity to turn those chances to points, scoring 1.21 points per possession on put-backs, ranking third in the nation.

On the other hand, we also knew that Randle’s jump shooting needed work. He shot only 17% on jump shots his freshman year, and was the least efficient jump shooter in terms of power forwards in his class.

Across different scouting reports, you see the same trends. Randle’s strengths: rebounding, high-energy, power and aggression. His weaknesses: short arms, preventing him from being an effective rim protector, lack of jump shot, and tunnel vision with the ball in his hands.

With the season winding down, it seems as if Randle’s game hasn’t matured much. He has shown that his NCAA-leading 24 double-doubles at Kentucky were no fluke, and that stopping him on the way to the rim is a tough task for any defender, even Draymond Green.

 

 

But Randle hasn’t made the leap in the areas needed to be a true offensive force for the Lakers, especially at a position as vital as power forward in today’s NBA. He’s shooting only 23% on mid-range shots, and only 36% on paint shots outside the restricted area. In total, Randle’s 28% performance on all two point jump shots raises the question: why haven’t we seen more improvement since his freshmen year?

In a way though, it makes sense. Rookies often come into the league relying on their strengths. They play to what got them there, in the hopes that those same talents will help them achieve new heights. It’s common knowledge that it’s much harder to add new facets to your game throughout the course of the season, and the off-season offers the only real opportunity to do so. Rookies get the benefit of trying out their games during the season, and learning what adjustments will be necessary for them to succeed at these new heights.

Randle simply hasn’t had that luxury. His lost rookie year could have been instrumental in proving the importance of developing counter-moves, a right hand, a jump shot. But the Randle we see on the court simple avoids his weaknesses, rather than developing them into strengths.

That is why this off-season will be so critical for Randle. With potentially another draft pick coming the Lakers’ way, Randle will need to flesh out his skill set to show that he is a foundational part of the franchise’s future. Especially if the Lakers are lucky enough to draft Ben Simmons, Randle might find himself fighting to prove his worth.

Though he definitely still loves to bulldoze his way to the rim, Randle has already shown the potential to be a playmaker; he often takes the initiative to lead the break after a defensive board, and his triple-double performance against the Nuggets showed off his ability to get his teammates substantive looks at the basket.

In reality, Randle could actually benefit from taking it a little slower with regards to initiating. His preference of bringing the ball up the court himself rather than dishing it to a guard has started possessions in confusion. A little more patience could go a long way. And focusing more on giving the ball up and getting down the court would allow him to get to his most effective spots on the floor immediately.

His penchant for grabbing loose rebounds has never been called into question. But it’s imperative for Randle to add more skills to his offensive repertoire to be the offensive beast everyone wants him to become. Something as simple as improving his finishing with the right hand could take him to another level. To be truly indispensable, however, Randle would have to expand his shooting range with more consistency. He’s shown the willingness to at least put up threes in recent games, but it’s not much of a threat from someone shooting 20% from distance since the All-Star Break. But he’s on pace to put up more attempts from three since then, and the hope is that his increased confidence behind the line will lead to more work from there in the off-season. The heatmap below shows he hasn't found his stroke much outside the paint, and defenders have learned to simply give him space to wait for the inevitable drive to the left.

Source: NBASavant.com

 

With the emergence of Russell and Nance, combined with the possibility of the Lakers choosing the rebounding and playmaking specialist Ben Simmons out of LSU, Randle absolutely needs to round out his offensive game in order to stake his claim in the future redemption of the Lakers. Anyone familiar with the NBA knows the importance of both defensive and offensive flexibility at the four position in today's game. Randle will never be a rim protector, and it takes more than one off-season to gain familiarity with the defensive nuances at the NBA level. But an expanded shooting touch, more accuracy with the right hand, and a more patient understanding of the Lakers' offense could help Randle solidify his place in the new nucleus of purple and gold.

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