The Los Angeles Lakers’ young core is like a treasure trove of shiny new toys for fans to get excited about. Brandon Ingram just came out of the box and is going to require some assembly, while D’Angelo Russell has finally been put together and is ready to be played with. Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Ivica Zubac are the shockingly cool figures no one can believe the front office picked up from the bargain bin.
Collecting dust in the corner all summer was Julius Randle, gone and at least somewhat forgotten. Other than Clarkson (a third-year player on his second contract) and Randle, all the players listed above played in Las Vegas Summer League, which functioned for fans as a small ad highlighting their best features. This led to some writing off Randle to a degree, in part due to recency bias based on the strong play of Nance Jr.
However, just because Randle wasn’t doing it publicly doesn’t mean he wasn’t working on his game over the summer. Randle’s averages of 9.4 points, eight rebounds, and 3.2 assists won’t blow anyone out of the water, but those counting stats don’t fully reflect his biggest area of improvement.
Randle became known as a tunnel-vision suffering isolation scorer who couldn’t score very well in isolation last year, but towards the end of the season he started to show signs of improving as a playmaker. They went mostly unnoticed amidst the Kobe Bryant farewell tour extravaganza, but they were there.
That potential has been more fully unlocked under new head coach Luke Walton. The Lakers’ more movement heavy offense has given Randle more options to choose from, and he’s taken advantage of the open passes. Not all of his ball movement has translated into assists, but he’s been noticeably more willing to move the ball and find the open man.
Whereas last year Randle might have tried to put his head down and get to the basket on the play below, this time he immediately noticed the Kings cutting off of the paint and whipped the ball to the red-hot Russell for a corner three:
Too often Randle would force up shots into triple-coverage last year (who says the kids didn’t learn anything from Kobe?), and while he hasn’t been totally cured of that issue through five exhibition games, on this sequence he noticed the defense collapse and kicked it out to Nick Young for three:
Not everything has to be even that fancy. Randle just making slightly quicker decisions and not holding on to the ball so long with a loading bar above his head is a positive for the Lakers’ offense:
Even more intriguing among Luke Walton’s continued assertions that he plans to play Randle more at the five are visions of him as a glass cleaning point center, running the break and wreaking havoc in transition with his unique combination of size, handles, and now, playmaking:
Good things happen when the Lakers #RunTheJules:
We've got ourselves an #RTJ sighting tonight! https://t.co/YU1CIKUpVF pic.twitter.com/5KYep7r4hI— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersSBN) October 14, 2016
It’s also led to some serious hype from his teammates (or at least one teammate):
Nick Young said him & Randle have a special connection: “Julius just being Magic Johnson on his fast breaks & finding me! It’s crazy!"— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) October 14, 2016
Here is where we note Randle hasn’t been flawless (he’s not Magic Johnson just yet). He had five assists against the Kings, but he also posted a team-leading four turnovers. It’s just the preseason, meaning that this type of passing offset by coughing up the ball could be the norm, or Randle could work out the kinks and improve as the year goes on.
Which way Randle’s development ultimately goes will be one of the seemingly limitless things to watch about the Lakers this year, but his improvement as a passer will make it hard to push him to the bottom of the toy chest again any time soon.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.