To say Julius Randle is playing well to start the season would be a massive understatement. Through three games, Randle is scoring 15 points, grabbing nearly 7 rebounds, and dishing over 3 assists a game. He is shooting 67.9% from the floor and has a PER of 21.6. It’s a fair argument to say that over the team’s first three games, Randle has been the Lakers’ best player.
Most of the gains mentioned above are on offense, but that should not obscure some of the defensive improvement Randle is showing. No, he’s still not a “plus” defensive player overall, not when he can still stand to make real strides as an off-ball defender who is making early rotations and being a real deterrent at the rim. Over time, if Randle is going to be considered a real two-way threat, these areas of team defense will need to be improved. There’s no way around that.
But, I think as is the case with Randle through his first two seasons, many are too quick to point out all the things Randle’s not doing (or not doing well enough) rather than crediting him for where he is actually is making strides. With that in mind, one area in which I have been impressed with Randle this year is when he’s been asked to switch onto wings and defend in space.
Here is a possession against the Rockets from opening night. Randle got switched onto Harden on the wing and Houston promptly cleared the entire side to let the bearded one destroy the the switch (as he often does). Thing is, it didn’t happen. Randle squared up Harden, gave a bit of ground to discourage a drive, then timed his contest of Harden’s step back jumper perfectly to force an airball:
The thing which impressed me most about the above play was that Randle actually showed improvement from a possession earlier in the game. At the end of the 1st half, Randle was in a similar situation as the one above, but at the top of the key. Instead of contesting well, though, Randle challenged Harden’s shot with his own left hand and, in doing so, crossed Harden’s body which led to there being contact and a foul. Harden went to the line for 3 FT’s. Now, look above again. This time, Randle correctly challenged the left handed shot with his right hand and slid by him to avoid contact.
In this next play, Randle is again isolated against Harden. Maybe James remembered the play from just 2 minutes prior and decided he was not going to settle for another jumper. Harden quickly attacks Randle off the dribble, but Julius does a good job of sliding with him, not reaching, then challenging only after Harden leaves his feet. The result? A huge blocked shot.
Similar to the play against the Rockets is one which occurred against the Jazz. On this play, Randle ends up isolated against George Hill who had been killing the Lakers all night. Hill did not attack Randle the first isolation chance, but after getting a return pass, he did so quickly and, what looked like, effectively after a nice pump fake.
Notice how Hill attacks Randle’s front foot and looks to be clearly by him for an easy layup. Randle, however, does not quit on the play. Rather than reaching or committing a foul, Randle trails the smaller Hill and then, just like he did vs. Harden, challenges the shot once it’s up and meets it at the glass for another huge block.
I know these are only three plays. And if you sift through every defensive possession where Randle is in isolation on a switch, you will find some clips which don’t work out in his favor. To focus on this, though, would be to miss a pretty big point: most offensive teams want this switch to happen. They want your big man defending in space against a primary ball handler and shot creator. They want this because more times than not, the offense will win this battle. Randle, though, is showing he can thwart these plays.
This is important for a variety of reasons, but none more so than this simple progression: 1). the Lakers want to play small down the stretch of games and they want to do so with Randle manning the middle 2). one of the most frequently run plays by teams in crunch time/when they need a basket is a P&R 3). unless you are a master rotating team who can defend this action perfectly, simply switching is the preferred option 4). if Randle is going to be the lone big on the floor, he’s going to be attacked in this action more than any other player.
Now, what happens if Randle can defend this action well? That’s right, they become a better defensive team at the end of games.
Again, Randle has a ways to go as an all around defender. But some players never show the aptitude he does when switched onto and isolated by a wing. He’s showing the quickness, strength, timing, and recovery ability to be able to bottle up ball handlers in space on the wing. This is not a small thing and if he can continue to do this well it opens up a lot of defensive possibilities for the Lakers.