Julius Randle’s fourth season in the NBA was far-and-away his most productive. After missing practically his entire rookie season with a broken tibia and two less-than-impressive seasons to follow, the former Kentucky forward finally showcased the potential that got him drafted with the seventh overall pick in 2014.
The team that drafted him, the Los Angeles Lakers, recently extended Randle his qualifying offer, which makes him a restricted free agent for the upcoming free agency fiasco (which is going to be an absolute mess).
The rumor mill has been churning over the last several days and the Lakers have been smack dab in the middle of everything. From being linked to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and LeBron James, it feels inevitable that the Lakers will make a league-altering move sooner rather than later. And if/when that does happen, it’s going to have a large impact on where Randle ends up by the time the 2018-19 regular season begins.
Since LA extended Randle the qualifying offer, they reserve the right to resign him even if another team offers him a contract. After the Lakers traded away Jordan Clarkson to Cleveland before the NBA trade deadline, they freed up enough cap space for them to sign two max contract players. They can still sign two max free agents AND resign Randle, as this article outlines, but the question is do the Lakers WANT to do that?
The Lakers are legitimate contenders in the Kawhi Leonard saga, as it stands, and could end up trading away key pieces such as Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and future picks in return for the San Antonio All-Star. There is also a chance – albeit, a sliver of a chance – that the Lakers can somehow manage their way into a trio of Leonard, George, and James. In that case, Randle would be long gone and the Lakers probably – and understandably – wouldn’t think twice about it. But odds are that won’t happen *fingers crossed* and the Lakers will have to come to a consensus that Randle’s one season of impressive basketball is worth giving him a hefty contract.
At 23-years old, Randle is still in the developmental stages of his career. Missing his rookie season definitely hindered that, but he’s regained control and was a brute force last season on a struggling – yet young and talented – Lakers squad.
He didn’t even start the first half of the season, dumbfounding myself and Lakers fans everywhere, as he was the team’s second, and sometimes best, overall player. In the 49 games he started last season, Randle averaged 18.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists while shooting 56.0 percent from the field. Despite being undersized at 6-foot-9, he played nearly half his minutes at center, per Basketball-Reference, although mainly out of necessity. He was a slightly above average rebounder among bigs, which is encouraging given the situation he was in.
So should the Lakers go all-in on Randle and give him the contract he so desires? In short, they should, but there are a ton of variables that explain why and why not it might be a good idea.
First off, Randle was a bully on offense and especially in the post. He’s incredibly quick on his feet for someone who weighs 250 pounds and was so good at getting to the rim that it made his lack of an outside shot seem irrelevant at times. He finished in the 93rd percentile among bigs in terms of being fouled on shot attempts and shot 69 percent on shots within four feet of the basket, per Cleaning the Glass. When he gets close to the basket, he can contort his body in confusing fashion and is adept at finishing with contact. He was unstoppable at times when he put his head down and decided he was getting to the basket at all costs.
Randle is also a gifted passer for a big, justified by his 3.1 assists as a starter and his impressive 15.8 assist percentage, which ranked in the 90th percentile among bigs last season. He also did so on an elevated usage rate of 25 percent, which is crazy high for a big man. It was also higher than Kuzma, Ingram, and also Lonzo Ball’s usage percentage. His offensive positives are undeniable and he has potential to be a secondary scorer on a playoff team.
I’ve been on the Randle hype train since before last season even started, but now that the season is over and I’ve had time to reflect and study him, his deficiencies have become a bit more clear. The most glaring one being his lack of a three-point shot. He attempted 45 threes last season, making only 10 of them. In the games he started, he wasn’t much better, going 3-18 from deep. As the season went along, he went away from the three in favor of playing bully ball, which worked in his favor, but not having that shot in his arsenal is a concern going forward. Playing a high usage, undersized big who can’t stretch the floor for 30-plus minutes a game leaves a lot of open holes on offense. He can make up for it with above-average passing and a dominating presence as a rim attacker, but as the league trends towards the perimeter, it’s something he’s going to have to improve upon if he wants to succeed. Being surrounded by players such as Paul George or LeBron James could potentially mitigate that necessity, however, it’s always going to be an issue until he fixes it.
A misconception surrounding Randle was that he was an excellent defender last season, especially on the perimeter, which is only partially true. While he started out the season as one of the best big men defenders in the league, that quickly tapered away. Here’s a link to a quick thread that outlines just exactly what I’m talking about, but essentially, as the season went on, his status as a high-level individual defender saw a severe decline. Randle’s defense could have withered away because he was playing out of position or possibly because of the extended playing time after being named a starter which in turn somewhat “exposed” him. Some believe it was simply a lack of effort, or it could just be an outlier sample. Randle has never been a great team defender but he does have incredibly quick and shifty feet and has shown that when engaged he is an elite perimeter defender, which puts him in rare company.
There are significant risks that come with offering Randle a large contract, but the benefits and potential he offers could outweigh all of them. After watching him all season, I believe they do. Randle redefined his game during the last offseason and he appears to be (at least from what he’s put on social media) following suit this offseason. An added jump shot would make him a multifaceted player on offense and another full season will give us a better sample size to decide just how good of a defender he truly is. But the Lakers don’t have another season to study him. He could get the benefit of the doubt if the Lakers manage to bring in multiple All-Stars, which would put him on the backburner in terms of who the fans and media are focused on. However, if the Lakers do indeed want to keep Randle, they’re going to have to invest somewhere in the $15-20 million per year range. He’s not going to come cheap and he shouldn’t. Other teams are going to offer him huge deals.
Losing Randle and watching him succeed elsewhere (say the Dallas Mavericks or possibly with Devin Booker in Phoenix?) would be a hard pill to swallow for Magic Johnson and the Lakers front office, especially if they don’t land the big-time free agents they would like to either this summer or next summer. The safest move would be to lockdown Randle, but it’s not as easy as it might seem.
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