On Tuesday night, Julius Randle scored 19 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and dished 11 assists in the Los Angeles Lakers win over the Memphis Grizzlies, becoming the sixth player in the league to record more than one triple-double this season. The others to accomplish this feat: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, not bad company to be in.
His play this season has been inconsistent, but when he is on Randle has been a devastating whirlwind of speed, skill, and brute force. Players who are 6’9” and 250 pounds simply shouldn’t be able to move the way Randle can, but things really become unfair when you factor in his strength, which causes defenders to bounce off of him like bullets hitting Superman.
Randle’s exploits have started to gain national attention, and his reputation in the league is on the rise.
It wasn’t always this way.
During the 2014 NBA Draft, there was a real debate about who the best power forward would be between Randle, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, and Indiana’s Noah Vonleh.
Despite Randle’s success at Kentucky, there were very real concerns about how he would adapt at the next level. 15 years ago, when there was extra emphasis placed on the “power” part of a power forward, Randle would have been the clear selection after he dominated the college game with his bully ball style.
However, the modern NBA four needs to be able to stretch the floor, which Vonleh projected to do, and has to have the versatility both protect the rim and pop out on the perimeter in pick and roll situations, which suited uber-athlete Gordon perfectly. Randle, despite his brute strength, couldn’t do any of that particularly well.
The evolution of the game appeared to make Randle something of a throwback to a bygone era, which is part of the reason why he fell to the Lakers with the seventh overall pick (Gordon went fourth to Orlando, Vonleh ninth to Charlotte).
Randle broke his leg during the first game of his rookie season, and his de facto inaugural campaign last year seemed to confirm the fears that his shortcomings would drag his ceiling down.
Teams treated him like he was carrying the plague on the perimeter, playing so far off of him that they were begging him to shoot. He possesses a quick first step, but Randle has the wingspan of an average human, so when driving against the spider-limbed defenders in the NBA, he can look something like a T-Rex, struggling to get his shot off over a forest of arms.
Scoring in the paint was made even more challenging because everyone in the building knew he wanted to get the ball back to his dominant left hand, often contorting his body awkwardly to do so. Without an outside shot or the ability to score efficiently inside, it appeared that Randle’s gifts would largely be wasted.
What a difference a year makes.
This season, Randle has unquestionably separated himself from his draft day competitors despite their more modern games (courtesy of basketball-reference.com):
To be fair, Gordon is now primarily playing small forward in Orlando and still has plenty of potential, but it’s Randle that has truly impressed.
So what happened? Randle’s arms didn’t magically grow nor has he evolved into a deadeye shooter, but he has managed to make up for it by getting ridiculously good in other areas.
His ball-handling ability goes well beyond those of a typical power forward, which allows him to use his elite rebounding (4th in the league amongst power forwards with 8.7 per game) and surprising speed to snatch the ball out of the air and bulldoze down court in a terrifying one-man fastbreak. Teammate Nick Young recently called him “the Juggernaut with handles“, and it’s an accurate description for his monstrous runs.
And he’s getting better at it.
Last season he had a tendency to get tunnel vision, focusing on the rim like the Cookie Monster when he sees a Chocolate Chip. This year, however, a wiser Randle has embraced the spirit of giving, and now frequently sucks defenders into the paint with his drives and then kicks the ball out to open shooters. This action has caused his assists to jump from 1.8 to 3.8 per game, which is 2nd in the league for starting power forwards.
Point guard D’Angelo Russell even told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters that Randle is now a “pass-first type of guy”, which is something few could have predicted after last season.
The threat of the pass has also kept extra defenders from abandoning their mark to bother Randle’s shot from the weak side, which has combined with the work he put in over the summer on finishing (and even occasionally using his right hand) to bump him from a 43 percent shooter last season to a much more efficient 50 percent.
These things combined have turned Randle into a real offensive weapon for the Lakers. He may not be able to protect the rim or hit threes at the same level, but he’s beginning to look a little Draymond Green-ish with the way he can run the offense, which was the idea when head coach Luke Walton was persuaded to head south from Golden State and join the Lakers.
And here’s the scary part: Randle is slowly but surely improving his outside shot.
Take a look at his shot chart from last season compared to this season, and notice the slight improvements nearly across the board (courtesy of nba.com/stats):
He’s still no Steph Curry, but Randle is getting close to making defenses guard him on the perimeter, and when that happens, watch out. If defenders can’t play three steps off of him to protect the drive, then we should see him get to the rim unimpeded that much more frequently.
Randle has even improved defensively, upping his Defensive Rating from 113 last season to 110.5 this year. That still isn’t great, but the difference is noticeable, and minor improvements in a few areas can add up to a big impact. Just as his passing is making up for his lack of wingspan on the offensive end, his perimeter defense is getting better, which is helping to make up for his poor shot blocking.
It’s going to take time, but Randle’s ceiling is unquestionably rising. He may not fit the mold of the modern power forward, but Randle is proving that good basketball players rise to the top regardless of what era they play in.