Los Angeles Lakers power forward Julius Randle has become an afterthought.
From the No. 2 overall high school prospect to Kentucky phenom to the No. 7 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Randle was set to embark on a Rookie-of-the-Year-type campaign in his first season with the Lakers.
Then he broke his leg in his first game as a professional and missed the rest of 2014-15.
He’s been playing catch-up ever since.
Once his career finally did get underway, it wasn’t the illustrious beginning many expected. Although Randle averaged a double-double as a rookie (11.3 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest over 81 games played), they were hollow stats.
He was one of the least efficient players on one of the absolute worst teams in the league.
The former Wildcat’s effective field-goal percentage in 2015-16 was a laughably porous 43.5 percent – the 11th-worst mark among players who participated in over 60 games on the year, and the third-lowest among big men. He also finished the season with a negative-0.9 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) – the NBA’s fourth-worst rate.
Now, with the excitement of landing Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball in back-to-back drafts (to be fair, we get it – they both looked excellent in Summer League), and the buzz surrounding the possibility of Paul George or LeBron James (or maybe both?) heading to the City of Angels, Randle hardly gets any pub.
Simply put, that’s a mistake.
The 2016-17 season gave us glimpses of the player Randle was as a prep superstar beginning to find his footing in the NBA: The under-control locomotive who could keep the keep the ball on a string while charging at retreating defenders with relentless ferocity.
He may not be all the way there yet, but signs exist he’s on the right path.
Improvements across the board
Between Year 1 and Year 2 (for our purposes, we’re throwing out his 14-minute rookie campaign), the Lakers’ 4-man upped his statistical output in just about every single category – both raw and advanced.
Apart from his astronomical jump in efficiency (specifically, though they may not seem like much, his improvements in the advanced metrics are borderline absurd), Randle’s most eye-popping betterment came in his assists per game.
The 6-foot-9 big man doubled his nightly dime totals despite playing just 0.6 minutes per contest more in his second full season of work.
With Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour over, first-year head coach Luke Walton was able to unleash his young guys, giving them the freedom to push their boundaries.
For Randle, that meant more playmaking opportunities. He didn’t disappoint.
Randle’s dime-dishing prowess
In 2016-17, Randle became one of just nine forwards in league history to average at least 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per contest before turning 23. By doing so, he joined the likes of Hall of Famers like Charles Barkley and Rick Barry, as well as multi-time All-Stars such as Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson.
Does that guarantee the current Laker will become a player of the same ilk as those household names? No, but it’s a damn promising start.
For proof of the trust Randle has earned from both his teammates and coach, just observe the following clip:
Timofey Mozgov grabs the rebound and struggles to find a guard to outlet the ball to, so he calmly throws it ahead to his frontcourt partner. Randle brings it down, takes it into the lane through light traffic, before stopping and finding a wide-open Nick Young spotting up behind the three-point line.
Because defenses have to react to a behemoth hurling down the court, the onus is on them to try and stop the ball. Guards crash down to help their backpedaling bigs, and more often than not, someone will find themselves as unmarked as Young did in the previous clip.
Randle is even comfortable in tight quarters, when the spacing dwindles and the slightest misstep can lead to a turnover.
Here, he brings the ball down once more, but instead of halting to find a guard like he did with Young, he drives it far enough inside to suck in two defenders (including former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol) and finds a wide open Mozgov spotting up for a short mid-range jumper.
To be fair, that’s not the type of shot you want the big Russian taking very often. But luckily for Lakers fans (and Walton’s sanity), an offseason trade saw Mozgov get shipped to the Brooklyn Nets. Now, Randle will be sharing frontcourt duties with Brook Lopez – one of the most efficient centers in the NBA.
The tandem will need time to gel, but should form an entertaining, productive partnership once their synergy find its place.
Ball-handling creates opportunities
Despite NBA.com’s play-type profiles listing Randle as an average (at best) basket-getter in every facet of scoring (besides putbacks, where he excelled), reasons for optimism still exist.
For starters, between his first two years as a pro, he has already seen marked improvement in seven of the 10 listed categories, which include isolation opportunities, post-ups and pick-and-roll finishing.
Blossoming production aside, his blend of physical attributes and overall skill level is quite uncommon.
Agile bigs who can dribble, pass and throw it down are hard to come by. And with today’s positionless stylings, where teams don’t bracket their players into archaic labels like guard, forward and center, but rather more forward-thinking spots such as ball-handler, wing and big, Randle may as well be a prototype.
He’s strong enough to rebound as a small-ball 5, yet possesses the dexterity to play the role of dime-dishing guard or rim-attacking gargoyle when he spots an opportune situation.
Like this one:
What’s more, because Randle puts so much pressure on opponents with his ability to glide with the rock in his hands, the following play tends to open up for him:
The Kentucky product dribbles to about half court before dishing it off to his point guard, D’Angelo Russell.
However, Zach Randolph had already drifted away from the basket – into an area he has little familiarity with – in order to respond to the threat of his counterpart bringing the ball up. Randle notices the Memphis Grizzlies big man straying into no-man’s land and like a cheetah chasing a gazelle, explodes towards the rim for an easy layup.
Sure, Randolph may be slow of foot at this point in his career, but that’s not the point; Los Angeles’ starting 4 is too explosive for any traditional big to defend on the perimeter.
As his jumper continues to develop (the power forward shot 22.9 percent from mid-range in 2015-16, but upped that clip to 37.4 percent last season), Randle will become even more menacing in halfcourt situations.
Randle’s versatility stands out
In 2016-17, only seven men averaged at least 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.5 blocks per game: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic, James Harden, LeBron and Randle.
Heady company for the third-year player, and a group that speaks to his vast potential.
Odds are, he’ll never reach the quality of most of those names, but that doesn’t mean he can’t find a niche as a playmaking big who rebounds and does the dirty work on an elite team. (We assure you: The Lakers aren’t going to be bad forever.)
Randle may not be the next Draymond Green, but if he eventually blossoms into a better-scoring version of James Johnson, Los Angeles’ brass would be thrilled.
What’s most important is the youthful player’s want to get better. Clearly, he has taken this offseason seriously.
With a newfound commitment to conditioning, the opportunity to share the floor with a distributor like Ball and Walton’s open-ended offensive scheme unleashing his natural talent, Randle is one to watch in 2017-18.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.