The Los Angeles Lakers’ 4-3 start has been a team effort, but if one had to pick a single breakout player so far it would have to be Julius Randle. The Lakers’ oldest lottery pick has roared out of the gates for the team with averages of 14.4 points on 60.3 percent shooting to go with a team-leading 7.9 rebounds.
Randle’s jumper isn’t a big weapon for him yet, but he seemingly addressed most of his other weaknesses over the summer. The third-year forward has become an able and willing facilitator, with his 41.3 passes per game rank second on the team behind D’Angelo Russell despite his holding just the fourth-highest usage rate on the team (nearly 10 percent lower than Russell’s). Randle is also scoring more efficiently and playing more under control.
He’s additionally made an obvious effort to fix up his game on the other end of the floor. Randle was not what one would call a strong defender last season, but his potential on that end has been unleashed under Luke Walton. Randle has had great success switching onto and staying in front of smaller and quicker players so far this season, and it has his head coach dreaming of big things from him in the future:
Luke’s impressed w/ Randle’s growth defensively: “He can be an absolute elite defender in this league w/ his size, strength & quickness."— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) November 7, 2016
We’ll go ahead and file that one under “things no one would have said about Randle last season,” but by the eye test it’s been accurate. I mean, how can you not get excited about his potential after watching him block Draymond Green like a Twitter troll?
That being duly noted, there are still a few issues for Randle to iron out if he wants to make Walton’s words a reality. He’ll have to improve as a help defender, especially because his * CLICHE ALERT * shorter wingspan will keep him from ever being an elite rim protector at his size.
There is also the reality that the Lakers have been worse on defense when Randle is in the game (giving up 105.6 points per 100 possessions) versus when he sits (99.4) so far this season. Some of that is due to small sample size and playing in the starting lineup with Nick Young and D’Angelo Russell while going against the other teams best players, but it should be noted just the same.
The biggest takeaway from this, however, isn’t to argue based on small sample sizes and advanced stats whether or not Randle can be an elite defender one day. It’s that Randle has played well enough that Walton can offer such an observation without it being laughed off. If Randle continues to improve as he gets a little older and a little more used to the NBA, he might make Walton seem like a prophet.
Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at@hmfaigen.