This season has been fascinating for Julius Randle. Randle had been delegated to the bench to start the Los Angeles Lakers’ season, and initially it was clear he wasn’t pleased with it. In the first two games of the season, Randle seemed disinterested and looked like he was allowing his benching affect his play on the court.
Then, something changed. You could see that Randle hit a switch in his mind and was going to make the best out of the situation. Since the Lakers’ game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Randle’s true shooting percentage sits at 60.3 percent over the 15-game span.
Julius has since been touted as the Lakers’ sixth man and leader of the second unit.
“I'm guarding those bigger guys and those centers, and I don't have to just rely on my strength, I'm relying on my feet and my quickness on defense,” Randle told Silver Screen and Roll earlier this month. “From an offensive standpoint, it's just kind of like a mismatch of my quickness to beat those guys who aren't able to move like I am. It's definitely been an adjustment, but it's been a good one.”
The numbers agree with Randle’s assessment of how playing center has been a welcome transition for him. Julius averaged 11.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in the 2015-16 season; 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists last season; and 12.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists this season.
The difference? Randle has been playing eight minutes less per game this season, but is shooting the best field goal percentage as an NBA player. On top of that, he has the best on-court defensive rating of his career. Teams are averaging just 99.4 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor. Randle’s defensive rating was 113.3 last season, and 113 in his sophomore season.
Still, despite the positives we’re seeing from Randle’s play, his playing time hasn’t seen a meaningful increase. Randle has played over 30 minutes in a game twice this year, and both of those games came in this past week.
Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Randle struggled to find the basket, shooting 16.7 percent from the field and ending the night with eight points. He was also given the assignment to cover Joel Embiid. I don’t know if you heard, but Embiid dropped 46 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists on LA.
In contrast, Randle had his best game of the season against the Denver Nuggets. The Lakers’ sixth man scored 24 points on 61.1 percent shooting, had seven rebounds and five assists. All of these things point to the Lakers being a better team when Julius “Can’t Handle” Randle is on the floor.
Things are a bit complicated when it comes to getting Randle more minutes moving forward, though. When asked about what makes Julius so useful in his bench role after the Nuggets game, Lakers head coach Luke Walton didn’t have an answer for the reporter.
“That's a good question, and I am trying to figure that answer out. Because when he plays like he did tonight, he is as good as anyone in this league. Especially in the way league is now with all the switching lineups.” Walton said.
Walton will juggle the playing time of Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, Brook Lopez and Larry Nance Jr., who just returned to practice after breaking his hand in Portland. Luke will have to decide whether to decrease the minutes of new fan favorite Kuzma, the former starting power forward Nance Jr., or potentially look at reducing former Brook Lopez’s time on the court. Lopez is already playing a career-low 24.1 minutes per game, though, and remains as the lone true center consistently in the rotation.
Coach Walton will have his hands full with finding playing time for everyone, but it’s become clear that Randle is the man that deserves the lion's share of these minutes. He’s earned it.
*All stats via NBA.com/stats