Editor’s Note: Please welcome Alex Regla to the staff here at Silver Screen and Roll. He’s a passionate Los Angeles Lakers fan looking for a place to grow as a writer, and within the basketball community, and I’m excited to have him on board as part of the squad here. He’s also just firing up his social media presence, so give him a follow!
An off-season filled with getting married, learning the ropes of fatherhood, slimming down to 8 percent body fat, and trying to add a 3-point shot to your game, is quite the what I did during summer vacation report for a 22 year-old.
Add to the fact that the young man is entering the pivotal final year of a rookie contract and trying to cement a future with the Los Angeles Lakers, and one begins to get a better grasp of what Julius Randle’s mindset is entering the 2017–18 NBA season.
In his short time with the Lakers, Randle has been one of the most polarizing players in recent team history. His initial NBA debut could not have gone worse, breaking his leg only minutes into the first regular season game of his career. The devastating injury held Randle out of the Lakers’ lineup for the entirety of his rookie season, an important notion to remember in comprehending how little on-court experience he has in playing professional basketball.
The role of inexperience is often overlooked when examining the Lakers’ young power-forward. Many critics of Randle’s game are quick to point out his known weaknesses without taking in the variables, on-court experience being one of them. In only three season’s worth of registered NBA game time, Randle has yet to average more than 28 minutes per game. In comparison to members of his 2014 draft-class, Randle has nearly 400 less minutes played than Jabari Parker, 500 less than Aaron Gordon, and 4000 less than Andrew Wiggins.
There is not only the aspect of playing time in regards to his inexperience, but his role itself has still not been as ideally defined since arriving into the league. In his first actual season, Randle fluctuated in and out of then-head coach Byron Scott’s starting line-up, starting 60 of his 81 games played. This may not seem all that bad for a young player, but the constant stop and go, coupled with the reasoning behind his benching and promotions not being appropriately expressed as one might have hoped, possibly added more to the already difficult transition to the NBA.
With the Lakers’ hiring of Luke Walton, many hoped his “player’s coach” style would provide dividends for the prior and current members of the young core, but thus far it has been marginal. Under coach Walton, Randle started all but one of his 74 games played this past season. Playing with a more solidified status on the team, and a better relationship with the coach, Randle out-performed his mixed initial campaign with slightly-better overall numbers.
Although not as astronomical of an improvement as many Laker fans would have hoped, the signs of development were evident. Averaging more points, a higher field goal percentage, and more assists per game, Randle showed he was willing to work on his weaknesses and get better, even if the results didn’t show he’d taken a step forward.
The main weaknesses of Randle’s game up to this point are widely known: A lack of a perimeter shot, poor decision making, and inconsistent play on the defensive end. All of which, Randle has both publicly acknowledged and expressed desire to improve in. This past summer, Randle put his literal contract eligible money where his mouth is by dedicating himself on getting in the best shape of his young career, and the results are already showing on and off the court.
Randle’s impressive physical transformation has already demonstrated improvement in his overall game this pre-season. The improvements, although subtle, foreshadow another step in his progression.
For one, his conditioning seems far superior compared to seasons past. His leaner frame has provided a new extra wind that has allowed him to sustain his brute style, but also fit effectively within the Lakers’ new fast-paced offense. He has been especially effective on the offensive side of the floor in finishing as the roll man. In this play, Randle shows high and then slips the screen finishing the perfectly timed alley-oop dime from Alex Caruso:
Then again here, this time catching the bounce pass with composure, gathering, and rising up to posterize the awaiting Mason Plumee:
These early examples of explosiveness are a great sign for Randle’s improved stamina. Many instances in prior seasons Randle would become noticeably winded for stretches of games. Those moments typically led to his sloppy play and his lack of a consistent effort on the defensive end, showing in the form of committing unnecessary fouls.
The coaching staff has seemed to make a concentrated effort early on to limit these instances before they arise again in Randle’s play. One small direction Coach Walton has given Randle is to hand the ball to a guard immediately after grabbing a rebound. As simple and obvious as it may seem, this has limited Randle’s “bull in a china shop” drives/turnovers in the paint after a grab-and-go, and allows him more opportunities to be the outlet recipient.
His hard work is also benefiting his play on the defensive end. Randle has exhibited both active hands and good defensive timing throughout the exhibition season. Against the Sacramento Kings, Randle racked up three steals, then followed up his performance with five more against the Utah Jazz. He has also done an improved job of contesting at the rim as the helper, as seen here with this impressive block:
Unfortunately, his other glaring weakness, his perimeter game, may never fully develop adequate consistency with his current jerky shooting mechanics, but his willingness to take the shot when the opportunity arises can serve almost the same positive impact on the court.
Randle attempted 63 three-point attempts this past season, up from only 36 attempts the season prior. Although his shooting percentage did not improve, his inclination in taking them, especially near the end of last season, was a step in the right direction.
Be it a small sample size, Randle has averaged two three-point attempts a game so far through preseason. As little as it may seem, he has yet to average more than a single attempt a game for the duration of any of his NBA seasons thus far. His efficiency on these attempts unfortunately has been relatively the same, but will in-theory rise with more in-game attempts. If he can sustain his willingness to take the perimeter shot when given, it could at the very least add an additional facet to his game that defenders will have to be aware of.
Ultimately, Randle may never be the player Lakers’ fans and ownership have envisioned of him, and that is okay. When a player is drafted, his ceiling is typically never reached. Yet, in Randle’s case, he has shown enough incremental improvements to see he is trying, and that alone should reveal the value of this 22 year old who is still finding his footing.