One step forward and two steps back. It's more than just an old platitude, it could also serve as the title of the almost inevitable biography of the Los Angeles Lakers' 2015-16 season. Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell are playing well, but get sent to the bench. Russell returns to the starting lineup, but only because of an injury to Jordan Clarkson, while Randle is left to suffer on the second unit.
"I'm ready to go home. I forgot what my house looks like," Randle told Bill Oram of the O.C. Register following the Lakers latest dispiriting loss, and he would be forgiven for admitting he had forgotten what one of his shots going through the net looks like as well. After a dominant game in Minnesota where Randle bullied his way to 20 points on 7 of 13 shooting, Randle has scored just 11 points on 5 of 20 shooting in the two games since. Part of this can be chalked up to the Lakers playing against two significantly more talented opponents in the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, but both of those teams did a good job emphasizing Randle's current weaknesses.
What are those weaknesses? For one, Randle has difficulty finishing off of the dribble when opponents with length are able to keep up with his first step:
Boris Diaw is initially beaten, but Patty Mills' rotation slows Randle just enough that Diaw is able to recover and block Randle's shot.
Here Kyle Anderson rides Randle's hip all the way to the basket and forces Randle into a difficult fadeaway.
Later in the Spurs game, Diaw (who might actually be the ideal type of defender for Randle with his combination of bulk, height, and quickness) once again was able to stay directly in front of the young Lakers forward, forcing a tough spinning jumper.
Terrence Jones was able to do the same thing by playing off of Randle, mitigating the damage of his quick first step and then using his strength (plus the help defense of Clint Capela, more on him in a minute) to force Randle to fade away from the basket. If Randle does not begin to show more progress on his jumper, smart teams with mobile power forwards are going to continue to play him this way.
The other way defenses have been giving Randle issues is the same way many predicted he would struggle at the NBA level: by forcing him to overcome his relatively modest wingspan to get his shot off over shot blockers in the paint. Against the Rockets, there were so many trees planted in the paint it looked like a conservation advertisement:
With Robert Sacre playing alongside him, Houston felt comfortable simply having Capela stationed at the basket to bother shots. In both the clip above and the one below, Capela is completely unconcerned with Sacre while affecting contesting/blocking Randle's shot:
This issue makes it even more baffling that Tarik Black has been completely forgotten in the rotation. Black is a much better and more active offensive rebounder than Sacre, so a player like Capela would at least have to account for that threat from time to time. Randle encounters the same issue on the following play:
For two consecutive Randle post-ups, Dwight pays nothing more than cursory attention to Sacre, allowing him to affect Randle's first shot and then swat his second one.
These struggles could be nothing more than a hiccup or small bump in the road of Randle's development, and are based in large part on the less talented personnel he is playing alongside with the bench as well. The sky is not falling on Randle, but the last two games have reminded that as good as he has looked at time this season, there is still a long way to go in his development. He needs to improve at finishing over length, or at least drawing contact rather than fading away. A consistent jumper (Julius is shooting just 27.3% on catch and shoot opportunities and 26.8% on pull-ups) is an additional necessity. At just 20-years old with 58 games left to play in his second NBA season, Randle still has a lot of time.
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