In multiple conversations I’ve had with Pete Zayas, he’s told me that if there’s ever a question about what position a player is you likely need to go “up” a slot. So, if you wonder if a guy is a 3 or a 4, he’s a 4. If you wonder whether he’s a 4 or a 5, he’s a 5. In a conversation Pete and I both had with Nate Duncan of the Dunc’d On Podcast, he told us an NBA personnel man once told him that if you can’t shoot in the NBA, you’re a 5 (this was an over-generalization, but I think you get the point).
What does all of this have to do with anything, you might ask? Well, I don’t know if Luke Walton believes the same things that Pete and the personnel guy Nate talked to does, but Walton has turned Julius Randle into a 5. The player who was drafted #7 overall nearly 4 years ago as a bruiser PF who flashed some real all-court game and perimeter skill is now the Lakers primary backup Center. As the kids say, life comes at you fast.
Need some evidence that Randle is now a 5? The proof is in the lineup data. Randle has played a total a 169 minutes this season. Of those, only 7 have been next to Brook Lopez and only 13 of them have been next to Andrew Bogut. That’s 20 total minutes at PF for Randle and 149 as the C.
Consider too, that this includes nearly a game and a half where Larry Nance Jr. was out due to a broken hand. Not only Luke did Luke Walton not turn to Randle to start at PF (Kyle Kuzma got the nod), but Randle still didn’t get any minutes next to Lopez! Kumza ended up playing 40 minutes in Friday’s win over the Nets and the other 8 minutes at PF were either given to Ingram or another wing (Brewer or Hart, mostly).
Beyond the numbers above, though, I think it’s clear that once Randle got over that he wouldn’t begin the season in the starting five (which took a couple of games), he’s been playing some really good basketball. He’s harnessed his entire game and doing things on both sides of the ball that is aided by him being the lone big on the floor.
Offensively, he’s isolating less and instead finding the creases in the defense as a release valve and finishing inside.
Two things stand out to me here. First, look who’s passing Randle the ball. That’s the PF — in this case Kuzma — setting him up. If Kuzma was being guarded by his own man (he’s not, there was a switch, you can see Tobias Harris #34 near the hoop), he’d be drawing the 2nd big away from the rim.
Which brings me to my second point. Randle finishes this shot over Andre Drummond, which is impressive in and of itself. But Randle can finish over/around one big. Where he’s gotten in trouble in the past is when he’s had to finish in traffic with his own man and the other team’s C lurking to contest his shot. Now that’s he’s playing C — especially next to Kuzma at PF — he’s typically only contending with his own man and he’s doing fine.
Building on that last point, it’s not just that Randle’s facing his own man it’s that his man is usually a bench big man. He’s been feasting on these guys, especially when he is isolating (which isn’t often). Look at him just abuse his man in the open court here:
The Pistons bigs were particularly overmatched against Randle, but he’s been making plays just like this one in the half court against other teams too. He took it Jakob Poeltl in the Raptors game and had some success against whatever Plumlee brother the Nets employ as well.
With Randle having success in these situations, it’s also opening up his passing — particularly when iso’d in the post or when operating out of HORNS sets up high. Look at this great pass he flung to Kuzma against the Pistons:
Notice here that Randle is actually being defended by Detroit’s SF on a switch. Considering how he abused their backup bigs, note how concerned the weakside defense was with him. Randle saw that all develop and whipped that pass to Kuzma for a spot up three.
While all this work on offense has been great, it’s actually been Randle’s defense which has impressed me most as a C. When he’s played PF, Randle has had issues as a weakside rotator while also tracking his own man. Too often he favored staying close to his own man and working was a rebounder and the integrity of the team’s overall defense suffered.
As a C, however, Randle has much less rotating responsibility from the weakside because he’s often the lone player hanging back by the rim or the coaches are leveraging his athleticism by having him switch screens entirely. These are areas of defense which play to his strengths, allowing him to hang back and use his strong body to absorb drivers at the rim and then contest their shot or letting him use his combination of quickness and strength to keep perimeter players in front of him.
Look at these two possessions, again vs. the Pistons. First, here he is switching onto a perimeter player:
Randle doesn’t have perfect technique here, but Reggie Jackson still cannot beat him easily. Jackson ends up taking a difficult step back jumper that Randle contests well. Randle’s actually been good at this for some time, so it’s not a surprise. But his rim protection has been a revelation this year.
Okay. That’s John Wall with a head of steam going downhill to finish at the rim. This would normally mean death for most bigs at the rim, especially ones who are converted PF’s. But look at Randle here. He slides his feet to square up Wall, jumps straight up, absorbs Wall’s momentum, and then blocks the shot on his way down. This is textbook verticality and is very similar to the type of play Draymond Green might make at the rim.
Before the year started, I (and many others) thought Randle should be named the starter at PF. He’d gotten into tremendous shape in the offseason and played better than Nance in the preseason. I figured the reward for that work and level of play should be a return to the starting spot he’d held for the two previous seasons.
Luke Walton had other ideas, though. Yes, he flirted with Randle playing next to Bogut in the team’s first couple of games, but those lineups performed poorly. The adjustment was to move Randle to C full time and make him the primary backup. Since then, he’s thrived not only on the types of plays highlighted above, but in individual post defense and a bunch of other smaller areas that don’t show up in the box score (like how hard he’s filling lanes and running the floor).
Randle’s been able to leverage all his strengths while mitigating many of his weaknesses. No, he’s not perfect. He still makes some of the same mistakes he’s always made — bulling his way to the rim, forcing some shots inside, etc. But, overall, his level of play is way up this year. I credit him for finding his stride in a new role and for playing well. But I also credit the coaching staff. They’ve unlocked a version of Randle I’ve always believed was there.
It just turns out, it’s playing C instead of PF.