The Lakers haven’t had a draft pick as high as Julius Randle since James Worthy was the number one overall pick of the 1982 draft. I was one-and-a-half at the time, no doubt sweating in a diaper in the Iowa summer, oblivious to a place called Los Angeles or an unborn human called Julius Randle. But now I’m 33 and spend my summer nights watching the Lakers’ most intriguing pick since they trade-drafted Kobe Bryant in 1996. Last night against the Warriors Randle stepped on the court with a mind hell bent on either proving to the Vegas crowd that he would not be boxed into some conventional back-to-the-basket power game or perhaps just the notion that he was going to explore the breadth of his abilities against pro-caliber players. Whatever the motivation, it provided for some mid-summer titillation.
I didn’t tune into the game until sometime in the second half (eventually I went back and watched it in entirety), just after I had received a flurry of texts critiquing the young power forward’s apparent penchant for putting the ball on the floor. And calling him out for missing jumpers. And questioning his conditioning. (I only hope these so-called “friends” with my phone number won’t use a Monday night in Vegas to permanently skew their view of a young Randle who appears to be finding his way rather than cultivating bad habits.)
It took me maybe a couple of possessions to see what all the texts were about: the catch, the immediate instinct to attack (usually with the dribble) – under any circumstance. The lane is clogged up? Dribble into it. Defenders are converging? Dribble through them. It’s late in the fourth quarter, the game is tied, and you’re a 6’9” 250-pound power forward breaking a press against a mostly set up defense? Dribble … and spin … and lose balance and shoot a fading scoop shot. At one point Grant Hill even tossed out a “Looks like he’s in the Rucker League” although I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a compliment.
Beyond the misadventures of Julius Randle were flashes validating the exploratory nature of his attacks. There was a lightning quick rip through move that left a Warriors defender staring blankly as Randle flew by and elevated for a two-handed dunk in traffic. He was fouled and missed, but it was the initial move that spoke to the beast inside. He caught a pass in stride on a fast break, converted an acrobatic layup underneath the hoop while getting fouled. He spent most of the game in face up situations using a mix of hesitations and jab steps which were executed with a confidence we don’t typically see in 19-year-olds. Surprisingly, there were even a couple drive and kicks where the teenager drew a help defender and exhibited great court awareness finding spot up shooters in the corner. And of course his strength is obvious on sight. It was nice seeing Randle use those extra pounds and large backside to physically overpower his opponents. Whether it was setting a screen or lazily using his upper body to hold his seal, there’s a bullyish element to his game that’s rooted in toughness as opposed to any Garnett-like nonsense.
With all those dribble drives, there was a recurring struggle to get shots off over the long athletes that appear in multitudes on every NBA summer roster. These defenders, with just OK timing and rotations, were able to disrupt Randle’s shots in ways that called to mind Elton Brand – an undersized power forward prone to having shots rejected. If Randle is unable to create space, blow by his man, or mix in fakes, it will continue to limit his ability to get clean looks. The Lakers did repeatedly use him in the high post where he was able to beat slower, longer defenders, but again, was harassed on penetrations by length.
The conditioning was definitely a factor in what was just his second five-on-five game since Kentucky played in the NCAA Championship back in April. In the limited sample size I saw, Randle was tugging on his shorts and using his arms instead of moving his feet. But given his lack of recent play and his balls to the wall (also known as B-double-T-W) effort, it’s not too concerning. Even in a summer setting he gives a damn even if he did he appear to stubbornly force the issue. Whether this was a result of a concerted Lakers game plan or just a part of Randle’s nature, it was evident.
Though Randle’s out of control dribble drives were at times laughable, at times just cuckoo, and maybe just a byproduct of fatigue (mental as much as anything), there was a lot more to like than dislike with his game. His decision-making is still catching up to his refined skillset, but if and when the Lakers finally hire a coach this type of thing should be coachable. In the meantime, he’ll have the rest of the summer to work on his conditioning and ensure there’s no Anthony Bennett-esque issues heading into the season. And for Lakers fans in this foreign time of unknown transition, he’s not quite Big Game James, but Randle’s little summer snippet is cause for daps and nods – we can’t be picky in these trying times.