He is a power forward who does not shoot threes (not yet, at least). He’s not especially long and is not a classic “big” defender who patrols the back line as a paint protector. He is a power player who loves his face up game. A player who, though very much left hand dominant, loves to drive hard to his right hand on initial moves. He is 6’9″ 250 pounds of down-hill, runaway train who does his best work in the open court.
In other words, Julius Randle’s game is not what you would expect. Not from a “modern” NBA power forward. Not in general. He’s unconventional in most every preconceived notion of style and game for today’s NBA at the PF position. And I love him for it. Give me Tasmanian Randle in the bunker next to me any day and let’s go to battle.
Randle, though, is entering his 4th season. No longer a pup in the NBA, he’s at the stage where, either a breakout is coming or he will soon be labeled a guy who “is what he is”. This point in his career has come fast. That’s what happens when you break your leg and miss your entire rookie season, then play your second year under a head coach who’s approach to offensive basketball was as modern as an abacus while also being on a team/part of a franchise celebrating a legend as part of a farewell tour.
None of this is to excuse Randle from anything. It’s just to provide the context for where he is now: entering a year where he is contract extension eligible and one where he will be a restricted free agent at the end of the year. Purely from a financial standpoint, this is a huge year for Randle.
It’s more than money, though.
As noted above, though only 22 (he will be 23 in November), the perception between “upside” and “established” is narrowing. Randle improved a great deal last year, both statistically and in overall effectiveness. But the eye test showed a similar approach and arsenal as the one he showed the previous year. He was just better at it. It will be hard for him to escape the questions of his lack of a right hand or how comfortable he looks shooting long jumpers until those aspects of his game actually show up. And until that happens, he’ll be dogged as the same guy he’s been, even if he’s actually better.
Defensively, too, there are even more strides to make. He’s very good at switching onto guards/wings and being able to contain the dribble or contest shots. He has shown he can rotate to get blocks at the rim, but he’s not in position often enough and can get too focused on his own man instead of balancing his help responsibilities with his personal match up.
Further, the Lakers will have choices to make in the summer of 2018. They will be pursuing two “max” level free agents, targeting the biggest names there are on the market (LeBron and George are givens as primary targets, Westbrook and Cousins will also be names mentioned should both become FA’s). However, the team doesn’t yet have the cap space to chase more than one max guy. And getting there actually isn’t so simple.
They will need to clear roughly $25 million to get to $60 million in space (approaching what they’d need to sign two max guys). As stands, there are 3 players the Lakers can look to off-load to create that space: Deng, Clarkson, and Randle. The Lakers are, reportedly, confident they can trade Clarkson. Deng can be waived via the stretch provision to create space, but trading him outright without attaching a high level asset will be difficult. If the team trades JC and stretches Deng, they’d still be about $3 million short of getting to that $60 million in space (assuming a $101 million cap).
This brings us to Randle. His cap hold next summer will be $12.3 million. If the Lakers need that cap space, could he be traded too before the summer even arrives? Could his qualifying offer get revoked and the team just let him become an unrestricted FA (a la the Spurs and Jonathan Simmons this summer)? Could Randle end up being a cap casualty? These are real questions, even if they sound a bit absurd on their face. I mean, when was the last time a team let a guy of Randle’s talent walk for nothing or to be used as fodder to clear cap space*?
The math is the math, though. And while we’re a long way from that, next summer will be here before we know it. At this point, it’s up to Randle to show he’s ready to take the next step in his career and get closer to becoming the player his talent level says he has the chance to become. His opportunity really is now.
It is easy to see what Randle doesn’t do well; maybe even easier than to see the things he does do well. There’s a hint of recklessness to the things he’s good at. Playing downhill and in the open court, defenders bouncing off him like drywall bouncing off the Juggernaut running through a house, lends itself to a certain perception. It makes it seem as though his effectiveness is not skill based, that his ability to succeed is determined by his physical gifts.
Randle, though, can play. I mean, he can really play. When he’s dialed in and processing information quickly enough that his reactions are instinctual, he can be a terror. We get flashes of this ever handful of games. The time is here for him to give us more than flashes, however. I think he can do it. I am a believer. But, if he isn’t able to, his future with the Lakers is in question.
It’s a make or break season for Julius Randle and I can’t wait to see which way it goes.
*D’Angelo Russell is waving in the corner.