No. 4. Julius Randle
Average Rank: 4.6
In a lot of ways, Julius Randle's career has barely even begun. Between last year's arrested development at the hands of head coach Byron Scott and his '14-15 season ending before most of the notoriously late Staples Center faithful even showed up on opening night, charting where Randle's development ought to be becomes a dicey proposition. As such, since it would take a heaping dose of intellectual dishonesty to hold up Randle's 14 minutes of action in 2014 as anything even remotely equivalent to an entire season's worth of professional experience, let's take a look at his functional rookie year and let it inform what we might expect from the Los Angeles Lakers' burly power forward in '16-17, in what will be his true second season.
A cursory look at Julius' raw stats from last season yields promising returns at first glance, with the former Kentucky standout putting up 11.3 points to pair with 10.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game for good measure.
More on the rebounding later but first lets talk about his scoring output. On the one hand, Randle is to be commended -- averaging double figures in scoring in his first real year in the league while coming off of a season-ending injury is impressive under any circumstances. The feat becomes even more notable if you allow yourself to ponder how any player on last season's squad ever made a basket while running anything plucked out of Byron Scott's tattered, moth-ridden gunnysack of an offensive system.
However, caveats and passable gross averages acknowledged, Randle's shooting efficiency last years was the pits. After starting the season at a dismal 40 percent shooting through January, Randle picked things up a bit in February and March, converting at 47.3 percent in those months, only to plummet back down to 36.2 percent in a handful of meaningless April games to close the year.
Obviously, whether Randle can develop a reliable jumper from midrange and beyond will play a huge role in determining his ceiling -- yet even his bread and butter offensive attack (straight from the Moses Malone school of "basically, I just goes to the rack" credence) didn't produce the kind of results you'd like to see. Randle finished the season with an unremarkable 50.5 percent shooting rate on close range attempts, with his unpolished finishing ability and lack of ambidexterity both bringing down what should have been a much higher percentage based on his ability to beat his man off the dribble and create quality opportunities for himself.
Again, the Lakers were a terrible team last season on both sides of the ball. It doesn't take a great leap of logic to presume that with better teammates, a competent coach, and sheer natural growth, Randle can work out the kinks in what should be a very effective individual scoring arsenal.
Defensively speaking, Julius has a ton of room to grow. Preseason flashes of him jumping out to hound perimeter players into coughing up steals before taking the ball the length of the court for a score of his own had many (myself included) salivating at his potential in a league where defensive versatility is at a premium. To be fair, his strength and foot speed (relative to more traditional, plodding big men) still have the potential to help him actualize that ability, but far too many defensive possessions last season ended with Randle getting caught ball-watching, out of credible help position or unnecessarily yielding the baseline to ball handlers.
In other words, a lot of Randle's defensive miscues were more of the mental variety as opposed to being caused by any glaring physical disadvantage. However, when taking into account the impossibly long odds of Randle ever becoming a legitimate rim protector, the cultivation of that versatile potential and the elimination of said bad habits will be essential in his growth. Sure, it would be difficult to imagine a more toxic defensive environment for a young player to develop in that what Randle faced last season, but there is still plenty of onus on him to improve in that area.
Now for the good news: in his only real season in the NBA, Randle has shown flashes of being a truly elite rebounder. Yes, even on the worst teams, somebody has to grab the basketball when it caroms off the rim (which, you know, happened a lot for the Lakers last season), but at the very least, Randle's 10.2 rebounds per game last year weren't just a case of empty calorie stat-padding. Aside from his raw total being good for 10th in the league, Randle's defensive rebound percentage was a sterling 32.7 percent (4th in the league), and his total rebound percentage was a very sturdy 19.5 percent (10th). Again, this all coming from an undersized functional rookie coming off of a devastating lower leg injury the season prior. Taking all of this into account, if absolutely nothing else, we should expect more good things from Julius in the rebounding department in '16-17.
One last number: 81. As in, number of games played last year after two surgeries the year before. This... this is a good sign.
Ultimately, in Randle resides a unique confluence of old school and new wave ideologies in that he's a true four man who doesn't space the floor particularly well, yet he possesses many of the versatile skills so coveted in modern big men — namely ball handling, passing acuity and the (potential) ability to switch onto perimeter players defensively. Yet, even with a full season under his belt, in a lot of ways, talking about Randle's ability at the NBA level still feels theoretical, as if the Lakers just drafted him two months ago instead of over two years ago.
To be sure, the start of the '16-17 season will present questions galore about where Randle fits into the Lakers offensive hierarchy in Luke Walton's system and whether he can achieve the kind of defensive impact a moribund team like LA so desperately needs. Luckily for the impatient, we should finally start getting some answers.
Fully healthy and on a team that, while young and inexperienced, should provide a more growth-oriented atmosphere (as well as higher quality scoring opportunities), fans should finally get a decent read on the player that signaled the first faint beacon of hope back when the Lakers ship first ventured into the murky, uncharted waters that they're only just beginning to navigate their way out of.
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