The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
In March of 2018, when Julius Randle had become entrenched as a Lakers starter and was playing over 30 minutes-per-game, ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote that, “If Randle can’t be a modern NBA big, at least he’s fun.” In a handful of simple words, Lowe articulated some of my longstanding confusion with Randle and, to some degree, gave me temporary peace — which is harder to find than I would’ve expected. That’s not the whole of Randle though no matter how accurate it is. Looking at him through the lens of the 25-under-25 list is a way for me to explore what Randle is and isn’t as a basketball player and what he could be.
Julius, big Julius, big strong Julius, as a non-modern, but effective and improving player is compelling for Randle and for the broader NBA. He proves, as do other, better players like Ben Simmons and Giannis, that contemporary stylistic preferences can be circumvented. For Randle and his commitment to improvement (which I explore below), his commitment to becoming the best Julius that Randle can be, there is still room to grow that does not require re-imaging or radicalization, but perhaps re-deployment. His key weaknesses: outside shooting and defense, are addressable and presently so poor that even moderate improvement can trigger powerful impact. To get there, we need to examine what and where he is today.
In the off-season, he signed with the Pelicans where he’ll presumably continue to be a compact wrecking ball in the Pels’ highly skilled front court. According to Basketball-Reference, he played 49 percent of his minutes at center last year and given his combination of bulk and athleticism, he seems an optimal fit in coach Alvin Gentry’s system which had the league’s fastest pace last season (the Lakers were second). Under Luke Walton’s fast breaking offense, Randle had the best offensive season of his career with nearly 22 points per-36 minutes on a career-best 60 true shooting percentage which was driven by emphasizing his strength at the rim and limiting his attempts outside the restricted area. He finished tied for sixth in the league in shots made-per-game (4.9) in the restricted area on a nearly 69 percent clip which is up from 61 percent in 2016-17 and 54 percent in 2015-16.
The Texas native has more functional strength and power than most NBA players and he knows this. I know he knows this because of how he plays and this is part of what makes Julius captivating. I didn’t pay much attention to him at Kentucky but watching him boldly explore the limits of his point forward skills at Las Vegas Summer League as a 19-year-old rookie, I couldn’t look away. His physicality (even then) and audacity (19-year-old Randle pushing fast breaks were innocent misadventures) insisted that I pay attention and that same freight train-ish power still makes him stand out even amongst the NBA’s electrical athletes.
His preference is still to go through you rather than around you. That he’s learned how to time his cuts and rolls to the basket, picking up a head of steam while proverbially running downhill is growth in that he’s figuring out how to compound his power through increasing speed and (possibly?) learning that he doesn’t need to initiate as frequently even if you can tell it’s still a primary instinct and contributed to a career-high in turnovers — though that was partly a result of increased usage.
If we agree with Lowe’s premise that he “can’t be a modern big,” then we must explore why a lottery pick and former top recruit who’s seemingly finding paths to his best self cannot or is not capable of positional modernity. Part of Randle’s commitment to getting to the basket by going through opponents means that he’s occasionally out of control, out of position or at a disadvantage. This has resulted in him ranking third in the league last season in blocks against-per-100 possessions at 2.3; just behind inefficient and sometimes out-of-control guards Dennis Schroder and Dennis Smith Jr. Part of this is the trade-off for re-allocating mid-range shots to the restricted area so it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but something more akin to the cost of doing business and area of opportunity.
Most glaring about his lack of modernity are his defense and perimeter shooting. In 238 career games, he’s taken just 144 3s and made them at a 26 percent rate. This put shim at the high end of a bad list with other non-shooters like A.C. Green, Hall-of-Fame Inductee Maurice Cheeks, and former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. He rarely attempts corner 3s (the corners make up nine percent of his career 3-point attempts) which has long been the staple of the evolving perimeter big. The opportunity cost of Randle’s lack of a perimeter shot is that it neuters what is a capable, if inefficient, ability to create for others. His handle can be high and loose, but he has the vision and burst to take advantage of most big men off a closeout and open the floor for others. Unfortunately, there’s no reason for opponents to do more than offer a nominal distracting hand. Conversely, it seems Randle knows that Randle can’t shoot as just 45 of his 904 (~5 percent) field goal attempts came from distance last season. Comparatively, 63 of 773 (8 percent) of his attempts were 3s in 2016-17.
In late June, Cleaning the Glass (CTG) contributors Bjorn Zetterberg and Jordan Brenner took an extended look at Randle’s defense. For someone who’s always enjoyed his bully balling, devil may care forays on offense, I walked away from this reading deflated. According to Zetterberg and Brenner, the Lakers defense was as good as fourth in the league in defensive efficiency when Randle sat versus 19th when he played. Similarly, they were fourth in turnovers forced when he sat against 29th with him on the court. CTG took it a step further by including numerous clips of Randle’s defensive weak points and there are simply things that I can’t unsee.
For a player with his obvious motor (particularly on the glass and working to get open), he’s far too often stuck in neutral on defense. He stands straight up and down, unready to react. There’s a complete lack of spatial awareness that leaves him out of position and unable to see plays developing and because he’s standing upright, he’s unable to react. To top it off and add the cardinal defensive sin, he has a habitual lack of effort that occurs on switches and defensive breakdowns. In these scenarios, he winds up caught between his man and the man with the ball. Instead of committing to taking a proactive switch and trusting a teammate will help, he stands frozen, unable or unwilling to make a decision, feet cemented to the court, eyes placidly watching the driver scoot by, the ball falling through the rim.
When I watched Julius Randle last season, I always found myself asking myself, “what is the optimal role for Julius Randle?” and at the time, I believe coach Luke Walton had it figured out: Randle, in a best-case-scenario, was a matchup buster capable of providing 20 to 30 minutes of average-to-above-average play. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to give the Pelicans that type of production either as a starter alongside Anthony Davis or off the bench spelling Davis and Nikola Mirotic or playing alongside both in a big lineup when the matchup favors it.
But Randle is still just 23 and won’t turn 24 until two months into the season. He’s so bad from distance and defensively that minor adjustments can lead to major results. Given the physical transformation he made a year ago and his incremental offensive improvements, he appears committed to hard work. Whether or not that translates into continued growth and versatility or he plateaus as a 4/5 with nice abs remains in the realm of an unknown future into which we’re all sucked, whether we like it or not.