Julius Randle is in a perfect situation, but for how long?


What if I told you that this offseason, there was a free agent who was coming off the best season of his career, during which he averaged 16.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game despite playing less than 27 minutes a night? What if I told you he did that while shooting 56 percent from the field and trudging to the free-throw line 5.2 times per game as well? What if I told you that made him the fifth player ever to average at least 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 55 percent from the field or better, in a season where he was not yet 25 years old?

What if I told you that same player also set career highs in both usage rate (25.3 percent) and true shooting percentage (60.6), making him just the 10th 23-or-under player in NBA history to post a true shooting percentage of 60.0 or better while using more than 25 percent of him team’s possessions while on the floor? What if I told you that usage and true shooting weren’t the only career-highs he set last season, and that he posted the best figures of his young career in offensive rebound rate (8.9 percent), free throw rate (0.470), and block rate (1.7 percent), as well as all-in-one measurements like Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares (both overall and per 48 minutes), Box Plus-Minus, Value Over Replacement Player, and Real Plus-Minus?

And what if I then told you that very same player was still only 23 years old, and that he had shown clear season-to-season growth in pretty much every area of his game over the course of his three full NBA seasons —but his own team was not all that interested in re-signing him?

Is there any world in which  you would imagine that this player would sign a two-year deal worth just $18 million on the open market? It seems crazy, but that’s exactly what happened with Julius Randle, who wound up signing a deal with the Pelicans that will pay him just $8,641,000 for the 2018-19 season before he is able to hit the open market again next summer, thanks to the player option New Orleans tacked onto the second season of his deal.

The reasons Randle was able to be had on the cheap are myriad, starting with the fact that he was technically a restricted free agent on July 1, though the Lakers ended up rescinding his qualifying offer in order to facilitate his exit to New Orleans. Restricted free agency tends to depress a player’s market value because teams know they have to overpay in order to get the home team not to match the deal; so Randle might have just been off some teams’ boards altogether before the free agency period even began, even though the Lakers seemed unlikely to match offers considering their bigger plans for this summer. (See: James, LeBron.)

Randle is also something of an odd fit in the modern NBA. He’s a big man who is neither an elite floor spacer nor an elite rim protector.

He’s attempted just 144 3-pointers across three seasons, making only 27.5 percent of those shots. He doesn’t even take that many mid-rangers, which accounted for just nine percent of his shot attempts last season, per Basketball-Reference. And while he’s a solid athlete, he’s not much of a vertical spacer — he tends to play more below the rim and has been thrown just 22 alley-oops in three seasons, connecting on only 15 of them.

His basket-protection prowess leaves something to be desired, as opponents last season converted 61.8 percent of their attempts at the rim when Randle was within five feet of both the basket and the shooter. That ranked 28th out of the 38 players who challenged at least four such shots per game, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com. And it’s not as though Randle was doing a bang-up job of deterring shots near the rim in the first place when he was on the floor. The Lakers’ opponents had almost exactly the same shot-distribution (and conversion rate) whether Randle was on the floor or not.

Of course, floor spacing (vertical and horizontal) and rim-protection are not the only important skills modern NBA bigs can bring to the table. And what Randle lacks in those areas, he more than makes up for with the remainder of his skill set.

For starters, he’s one of the most dangerous pure “big men” in the league with the ball in his hands and attacking the basket. There were 163 forwards who played in at least 50 games last season, per NBA.com, and among that group Randle ranked 40th in drives per game. Just two of the 39 forwards ahead of him were players who split their time primarily between power forward and center, rather than small forward and power forward. Not only that, but among the 49 forwards who averaged at least four drives per game, Randle ranked 11th in field goal percentage on the drive.

And while Randle was not much of a threat outside 10 feet or so, he showed the ability to get close shots pretty much whenever he wanted. Shots at the rim are the most efficient in the game, and though teams are prioritizing perimeter production from their forward slots more often than in the past, it’s still preferable to get shots as close to the basket as possible. Randle generates those with ease, and finishes them at an incredibly high rate.

If he gets a head of steam off the bounce — particularly when moving to his left, which is almost always — it is nearly impossible to keep Randle from getting to the rim. As a result, he took more than half his shots within three feet of the basket last season, and he also converted an absurd 73 percent of those attempts, the best mark of his career. His average shot distance in 2018 was just 4.9 feet away from the hoop, more than two feet closer than it was the prior season. A decent portion of those shots were also self-created, as 41 percent of his field goal attempts came out of isolation, as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, or via post-ups.

Randle also made positive strides last season as a defender, even if those improvements did not show up in his rim-protection. In particular, his mobility aided him in navigating switches, as he showed greater ability to deal with ball-handlers off the dribble. He’s still not what you would call a purely positive force on defense, but in the areas that tend to matter most in today’s NBA, he’s working toward that status.

All of these skills will help him greatly in his new environment. Randle figures to operate in a three-man frontcourt rotation with Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic, each of whom makes for an intriguing partner with Randle for different reasons.

Davis is the league’s best big man and can do basically anything you ask him to at this point. He is an elite dive man on screen-and-rolls, but he’s also become a strong playmaker off the catch or when operating near the elbows. His jumper has progressed to the point where it absolutely has to be respected, and he is probably the most dangerous dunker-spot lurker in the league. All of those things should benefit Randle, who loves to play downhill and is a strong forward-looking playmaker in his own right. The big-to-big passing connection between the two players should create easy opportunities for them both, and the attention defenses pay to Davis will allow Randle to occasionally operate as a secondary frontcourt scoring option, leaving him to work against weaker defenders than he’s gotten used to in LA.

Of course, the primary benefit for Randle of playing with Davis is that AD can paper over any and all of his defensive issues, both by taking the more difficult defensive matchup whenever they’re on the floor together and by always being in position to help if and when Randle gets beat. The presence of Davis should also allow Alvin Gentry to be a bit more aggressive in using Randle’s mobility, which is his obvious strength on defense, and should in turn minimize the lack of rim-protection ability that stems from his short arms. The Pelicans ramped up the pressure on the Blazers’ small guards during their first-round sweep of Portland in last year’s playoffs, and it’s easy to imagine Randle partaking in that type of pressure, hounding out on the perimeter and/or switching to cut off driving lanes rather than hanging back near the paint and failing to make much of an impact on an opponent’s shot attempt.

A Randle-Mirotic pairing is similarly intriguing, but for different reasons. The offensive fit is obvious: Mirotic spaces the floor horizontally, while Randle does so vertically. The gravity Mirotic has as a shooter should allow Randle to operate in the middle of the floor free of congestion, which should provide him with the clean driving lanes he needs to do his best work. Randle’s downhill style sucks the defense into the paint, leaving Mirotic free to bomb away from outside or blow past closing defenders who have had to change directions multiple times in quick succession.

The defense fit is less obvious on the surface, but makes sense nonetheless. They can essentially share the responsibilities of the 4-5 spots, trading off matchups depending on where they’ve found themselves positioned on the floor. Either one of them can blitz or switch on pick-and-rolls, and since neither is necessarily preferable to the other as a rim-protector, it doesn’t hurt to have one of them on the perimeter as opposed to the other. They’re also both strong enough defensive rebounders to consistently end possessions early rather than yielding a ton of second-chance points, which would just exacerbate the potential paint-protection issues. (Mitigating those issues are New Orleans’ strong defense at the point of attack, led by Jrue Holiday.)

In other words, Randle appears to have landed in an extremely advantageous situation for next season … but it’s only for a year. It’s clear that he has designs on hitting free agency again next summer. Why else would he have signed what essentially amounts to a one-year contract for below his market value? There’s opportunity here for Randle to prove his value in the league while playing an important role for what should be a playoff team, and in so doing, earn himself more money on the open market than he could have gotten this time around.

But if Randle does have as good a season as it appears he’s set up to have, what do the Pelicans do then? (If he’s merely fine or good and opts into the second year of his contract, the Pellies have a good third big man under contract at just over $9 million. That’s great. And if Mirotic leaves in free agency next offseason, Randle could easily slide into the starting lineup next to Davis as well.)

The Pelicans don’t really have the ability to hand Randle a big-money contract next season, due to the constraints of both their salary cap position and the CBA. New Orleans has around $75 million in committed guaranteed salary to just four players, and that’s before you account for the cap holds of free agents they’ll want to retain like Randle and/or Mirotic, and the empty roster spot charges that are levied against their books until they fill out a roster.

So, unless the value of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception takes a significant hike, the most the Pelicans can offer Randle next offseason, assuming he opts out of his contract, is four years and $44,587,558. (Through the non-Bird exception, the Pelicans can offer Randle a deal with a starting salary at 120 percent of his 2018-19 cap hit of $8,461,000, plus five percent raises.) That’s not exactly the type of monster payday he’s likely envisioning. New Orleans could potentially offer more by offloading the salaries of Solomon Hill and/or E’Twaun Moore and operating as a cap space team, but Moore is an important contributor on the wing, Hill’s deal would likely need an asset or two attached to dump on another team, and while there are other avenues to operating as a cap space team, they come with drawbacks such as potentially ditching Mirotic. None of those seems like appealing options.

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The best-case scenario for Randle involves his playing well enough to earn himself much more money next summer, when the league will be much more flush with cap space. On the one hand, that’d great for New Orleans because they’d have benefited from his strong play on the court. But on the other, that’d be not so great for New Orleans because they’d then need to replace Randle’s production going into the final year of Davis’ contract before he can opt out and hit the market, and they’d have limited means of doing so in a market where many other teams have far more resources available to them to add talent. This arranged marriage has the potential to significantly benefit both sides if it works out for the best, but the balance of that potential benefit tips far more toward Randle than the team that brought him in on a discounted deal.

Illustrations for this article were provided by Elliot Gerard.