We honestly know very little about how Julius Randle’s game will translate to the NBA level. Sure, we have our guesses, but that’s all they really are at this point — guesses. What we do know, though, is that Randle seems to possess a more versatile game than he was given credit for coming out of Kentucky.
After seeing him perform in a couple of summer league games, I wrote this about Randle:
First is that Randle possesses a very nice combination of quickness and power. On several plays he uses a surprising quick step to gain an advantage on his defender and then is able to hold that man off or body up a second defender using his frame. Regardless of the level of competition, these two traits will serve Randle well as the way you create separation in this league is either through outstanding footwork or physical prowess. Randle seems to have the latter and, coincidentally, also flashes some of the former.
The second thing that stands out is Randle’s skill level and ability to play out on the floor. This is where the Zach Randolph comparisons seem woefully out of touch. Randle seems to prefer to step out to 15-18 feet, face up his man and use his dribble to attack the paint. Employing some good ball-handling and a nifty spin move, Randle is able to get to closer to the rim and use his soft touch to convert. Randle also showed off good awareness when creating off the bounce, spotting open teammates on the wing several times, especially when help came at him from the corner.
That ability to play out on the floor and the skill displayed while doing so really did surprise me. It’s not that I didn’t think he was capable — coming out of high school, Randle was touted as an all-court player — but actually seeing him put the ball on the floor at his size while also flashing passing ability was impressive.
In a way, it actually reminded me of Lamar Odom.
First, it should be pointed out that no one is really that much like Odom and the differences between him and Randle are substantial. They have different body types — Odom was long and lanky, Randle is more compact and powerful — and, from what I can tell so far, definitely possess different on-court personalities — Randle seems to be much more of an “alpha” player whereas Odom was very much of a player who did the smaller things well and shifting his game to fit the team’s needs.
But, in looking past those differences, there are some strong similarities. Besides the left-handedness, Randle’s aforementioned ability to play out on the floor and take advantage of his ball handling skill is very much like LO. Add in the nice mix of passing, touch around the rim, and sneaky athleticism (though Randle seems to have even more than Odom did) and there is a good comparison to be made.
What also reminds me of Odom, however, is that some people are already starting to talk as if Randle should play some small forward in order to take advantage of skills that remind of a perimeter player more than a classic big man. And, much like Odom, I think that would be a major mistake in utilizing those skills.
Randle, like other big men who possess some perimeter skills, are best maximized by pitting those skills against players who are not used to defending in space. Put a 6’10” player on the perimeter and tell him to defend a like sized player who just so happens to be able to put the ball on the floor with skill and quickness and the advantage will almost always lie with the player who possesses the ball. Big players normally lack the needed lateral quickness to stay in front of such players. Add in the advantages that come with drawing that bigger defender away from the paint and the benefits to an offense only increase via better spacing for the entire team.
Of course, the natural counter to that argument is that if you have a big man who can score in the paint via post ups — like Randle can — can’t you gain similar advantages by punishing smaller defenders while playing him at small forward? The answer, however, isn’t as straight forward. Yes, in an individual match up you can, potentially, exploit smaller players. But what you also do is crowd the area below the FT line and decrease spacing. Helping against this player is also easier as it usually allows either a PF or C who is roaming in the basket area to slide over more quickly and help erase that advantage. When you combine that with the decrease in spacing, offenses are more easily gummed up as ball movement suffers and defenses do not have to scramble as much.
This was one of the main reasons the ultra big lineup using Odom as a SF next to Pau and Bynum never materialized as a staple of those team’s attack. Not only did it neutralize Odom’s guard skills by putting a defender on him who is more used to defending players with his skill set, but the spacing issues and crowded paint took away the most sought after result of trying to attack a smaller defender with the bigger one (shots in or near the paint). More often than not, the affect wasn’t some advantage for Odom or the team but instead had the opposite result as Odom couldn’t use his quickness as an advantage against smaller players while also limiting his ability to create in space and attack a vacated paint.
The same would likely occur with Randle. Especially if he’s paired with the types of PF’s and C’s the Lakers have on their roster (Boozer, Hill, Davis, and Sacre aren’t exactly guys who need to be defended outside of 15 feet).
I know it’s easy to look at a big man like Randle, see some of the skills he possesses and think that his versatility will lend itself to playing on the wing and punishing smaller defenders by getting into the paint and using his physicality to get buckets. But history tells me the Lakers will be much better off not going in that direction. Because while that versatility is an asset, it can also be misused if you’re not careful.