It's draft time again! For the worst teams in the league the lottery offers a chance to retool with high-level NBA talent on affordable contracts. Again, the Magic join this group of teams looking to add the pieces necessary to become a contending force in the league.
This year's draft class would have to be one of the most hyped and examined in recent times for the potential star power that is on offer. There will most likely be a couple of these stars, some productive starters and rotation players but there will be also be some who never amount to much at all. Everyone drafted will have basketball ability at some level however temperament , fit and work ethic are some of the key factors that will play into future success everyone one of these players. As a result of these factors (among other external influences) there will be prospects who slip through the cracks and go onto to be even better than they were originally projected. Will be because of the ongoing tension between old-school basketball knowledge and new-school analytics occurring behind closed doors? Simply because teams miss something when evaluating certain players? Or even something else entirely? I don't know. It happens every year and it will happen again. Some lucky/smart team (depending on how you look at it) will benefit from this and I want this to be the Magic.
Now, other than the likely top 3 picks, Exum and Smart have been evaluated to death (and I'm sure this will continue all the way up until the draft). I would like to preface this analysis by pointing out that, in addition to being a huge fan of Smart, I'm Australian born and as such I want nothing more than to see Exum succeed and take the league by storm. I think both players would be greats fits for us and with the right development each could become a force in the league. To break away from this debate I want to look at a player who is, in my mind at least, a candidate to slip through the proverbial cracks for whatever reason and go onto become a star calibre player, Julius Randle.
Too Hot to Handle
Julius Randle is a name that seems to have become pretty uncool as a draft prospect. Particularly in relation to the Magic the prospect of drafting him is often met with derision by fans and the media alike if he manages to get a mention at all. Many expect the man with 'Tyrannosaurus rex arms' to slide on draft day and to be honest, given the way that his game has been dissected and torn apart, it might almost be considered a small miracle if he gets drafted in the top 5.
Apart some of the obvious criticisms of his game and physique I believe that part of the reason of the reason that he has been evaluated so harshly is that he seems to lack the obvious appeal of some of his peers due to the style of game he displayed in college.
We can imagine Wiggins soaring down from the rafters to slam home a thunderous dunk sending the twitter-sphere into a frenzy.
We can imagine Jabari calmly sinking a fadeaway gamewinner deep into overtime.
We can imagine Embiid dream-shaking his way through unfortunate defenders.
Exum tearing down the wing.
Smart punishing weaker guards on the block.
Even Vonleh, we can imagine him dominating the paint.
But Randle...he doesn't really seem to have 'it'. That X factor that fans latch onto this time of the year as they hope and pray that whoever their team lands gives them some relevance.
We kind of think that we know what Randle is, a likely double-double threat in the post who will need another big man to take the heat off him so he can score with his tiny arms. Someone who isn't going to be a lock down defender and honestly isn't projected to even be league average in this area by many. He just seems kind of boring. Athletic but not athletic enough. Skilled but not skilled enough. Big but not big enough. About the only positive that most seem to agree on is that he is consistent and that just isn't that sexy (just ask Al Jefferson). I think if we look a little deeper though we might start to see a few things that could paint Randle in a much more favourable light.
The first point that I want to focus on is his athleticism or rather the picture that has been portrayed of it. By no means has anyone notable said that he is unathletic, it's just that he hasn't been portrayed as someone who is going to have enough to thrive at his position. This is doing Randle a big disservice. While is vertical explosiveness admittedly seems average at first glance it is actually pretty good.
That is some pretty explosive company so far. This standing vertical didn't set the world on fire but it wasn't disastrous either registering 29 inches. How about his agility?
Julius Randle lane agility test https://t.co/yAPKlCUeso— Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA) May 16, 2014
We he did well there too impressing in the lane agility test when he performed well in relation to his peers. In particular he and his closest mock draft rival, Vonleh, both scored a good 11:45 seconds. Off the mark he measured well too posting a great 3.27 seconds, the same as the athletic freak, Aaron Gordon.
So far, so good.
Watching him play throughout the year it was easy to see that he had an athletic advantage over almost anyone he matched up on. His first step is great for most players let alone someone of his size so don't be surprised to see him blow by defenders at the NBA level. There aren't going to be a whole lot of big men with the combination of speed and strength to stop him getting to his spots on the floor. I could post a bunch of highlights that showcase his athleticism but I will just show two which really stand out to me about where I think Randle is as a player now and where I think he can go:
You can count the number of starting power forwards in the league that can pull off moves like that on one hand. Working to towards incorporating more of these types of moves is going to make him a tough match up inside for any defender. In the future you may find that Randle's athletic prowess means that some small forwards are going to be tasked with defending him which will open up his teammates. Randle is going to have a nightly advantage over almost every player at his position with his combination of speed, strength, balance and coordination. This will mean a lot of match up issues for opposition teams which projects well from a scoring standpoint and when you get to the pointy end of the season and this stuff can mean the difference between survival and elimination.
The next aspect of Randle I want to look at is his skill level. In my opinion Randle projects to be both a great scorer and rebounder at the next level for a number of reasons.
Consistency is one of the keys that needs to be looked at here. Almost every time he took the floor he provided a double-double (or near enough). Coaches love players that they can depend on to play their role every night and at a minimum Randle's game and mindset scream dependability. He has possess a great motor which along with his anticipation and athleticism will allow this trait to carry over to the next level. Individually he pulled in 25.9% of Kentucky's rebounds and 10.4 per game individually which is great by any measure.
From scoring perspective the story is even more impressive given that he was positioned to become the primary option on a Kentucky team with limited assistance for much of the season. Over the course of the season Randle contributed 20.7% of his team's offensive possessions, much higher than Vonleh who only contributed 15.1%, all while maintaining a 0.57 true shooting percentage (slight better than Parker's 0.56 mark). He also got to the line well averaging 7.2 attempts a game and hitting them at a 70.6% clip. This projects well for him as a scorer given how important easy points are in a game, and personally the fact that he can hit his free throws is a big tick after having to watch Dwight build a mansion with all the bricks he threw up. Getting to the line is crucial for any star scorer but the Magic also just need players with this trait generally considering they were ranked 26th in the league this year at reaching the charity stripe.
His ability in the post has been covered before but I will highlight that he did get more comfortable with his right hand as the season went on. Apart from this shift, being able to score confidently with both hands is certainly an advantage but NBA history is littered with plenty of scorers who have mainly favoured one. The fact that he has already developed a reliable, soft touch is fantastic and bodes well for his offensive prospects. This paired with his ability to finish and draw fouls should mean a lot of 3 point plays down the line.
One aspect of his game which could allow him to become a much better scorer at the next level is his face up game. Much of what he ran this year were back to the basket and transition plays so many haven't had much of a chance to see his mid-range game. (As a side note I thought it was really interesting to see him play well with his back to the basket considering how many modern forwards place such a heavy emphasis on facing up). His competency in this area at a young age is a point of difference that will help him later down the line. On the other hand, this scoring style has lead to questions about his range and relevance given current NBA line up trends. Firstly, in addressing this I will start by noting that free throws are usually a good indicator of ability to shoot away from the basket and he was solid at the line. Additionally, forgetting the questions about how he was used offensively at KU by Calipari, if you look at any of his competitive matchups or workouts prior to joining Kentucky you can see that he is pretty confident with his range from 10-15 feet. With the way that he shot it in high school I'm very confident that this aspect will shine as teams' meet him for workouts. He may not need to shoot a lot because of his ability in the paint but it will be another way for him to put points on the board and open up the lane for himself and others.
Calipari tried to coach him out of operating on the outside so much. Instead put him in different situations on the inside:
Calipari thinks Randle occasionally "wants to settle on the perimeter, be like a guard," so he is working on making him attack in drills.
Transition offense was another area that Randle showed some real promise and production. His solid ball handling allowed him to initiate and run breaks. While these were impressive to see from someone his size, his handle needs to tighten up if he wants to make this a greater part of his offense at the next level. The fact that he is already showing these skills bodes well for his potential as a freight train in the open court.
Passing is an area that he improved over the course of the season and will be important if he wants to transition well to the pros. Randle frequently played with the ball in his hands in high school and was able to serve more as a playmaker than he did in college. At times he was criticised to being a bit of a black hole on offense but mostly that seemed to be due to the scheme that KU were running along with the inconsistency of his teammates. Randle doesn't possess amazing court vision by any stretch but he became more willing to give up the ball over time and showed good promise in hitting his teammates on time and on target. This was best demonstrated in his 6 assist game against Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament. This shift was certainly a factor in KU's run at the end of the season. If he continues to develop this area of his game it opens up the possibility of some more high post offensive sets and would give the Magic one of the best passing big man triple threats in the league with he, Vucevic and O'Quinn.
As a result of these factors I think we will see a much more offensively versatile Randle at the next level. He already possess many skills which will translate well at the next level as he explores different ways to put the ball in the whole while also opening up opportunities for his teammates. With this in mind I believe that he will comfortably be able to put up 20+ points a game with good efficiency in the long term.
Here we reach the area that Randle has probably been most criticised. While I won't spend a ton of time on this since it is easily his biggest weakness I will point out that there is a lot of upside to this aspect of his game (and not just because it was so bad). In the long term his quick feet will make up for some of his defensive IQ and it will allow him to get to the spots that he needs to reach so that he can challenge shots and affect passing lanes. This hasn't come to fruition yet I'm confident that a reasonable coach will be able to get this out of him if they make him accountable on defense from the start. Vaughn managed to turn a squad lacking a lot of speed and athleticism on the perimeter and a consistent shot blocking presence inside to a respectable 17th place defensive rating. Given a presence like Randle I feel confident that this will improve over time.
Let us not forget that rebounding is also a key part of defense when it comes to preventing second chance points. This also happens to be arguably the most effective stat in terms of translating to the next level. Rebounding is an area that Randle excels at and if paired with Vucevic they could form one of the most imposing rebounding frontcourts in the league. This will allow our backcourt to get out and run so that they can get some fast break points. Fortunately, Randle's size means that he is going to be hard to shift on the block so he should be able to contribute here from day 1.
Additionally, his wingspan which turned out to be 7 foot (the same as Lebron and Josh Smith) should help with the transition to the next level defensively. While it won't allow him to become a defensive anchor like Ibaka it will allow him to affect shots in the paint and strip players in the lane...eventually. Coaching is going to be key here but given his work ethic and mindset I'm confident of seeing growth. Keep in mind that Randle's wingspan is bigger than power forwards like Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Thaddeous Young.
This brings me to my final point about his defense, his ability to guard the pick and roll. While his low defensive IQ has made him vulnerable to moves such as backdoor cuts his quick feet have allowed him to get great position when switched onto guards and quicker forwards. Defensively this is something coaches worry about all the time and this shouldn't be the case with Randle long term. This ability to play both tall and small is vital in the league now where hybrid forwards and small line ups are becoming more common. For the Magic this will help them remain flexible on the perimeter, particularly in relation to Harris who struggles to stay in front of quicker players. Check out some examples of this in the video below:
Finally, there are a couple of intangible factors that I like about Randle which I think are worth noting. One is that he will be a KU alumni and their ability to produce top level talent has been well noted. His ability as a front court triple threat is going draw double teams and open up even more room for his teammates to operate. Also I'm a fan of his intensity on the court. It isn't quite at Garnett levels but you can feel his focus and when he gets that look in his eyes on the block. He genuinely possesses the mindset of a winner who won't back out of any situation (including turning up to the combine). He will provide another high percentage scoring option which in a position of weakness (the Magic were the 29th rated team offensively). Randle gives us a genuine identity as a group that will dominate on the boards and get out in transition along with his winning mentality. The extremely pun friendly name is also an added bonus.
Overall, Randle is good value at pick 4 for our team as constructed. He has defensive potential waiting to be unlocked along with offering a lot more answers than questions on the offensive end. Don't be completely surprised to see Randle making a big run at Rookie of the Year and become a 20 and 10 threat over his career. Some might portray Randle as a 'safe pick' but I feel that he is better thought of as a smart pick. The team that selects him is assuming little risk knowing that they are getting a productive, talented player at a minimum with the skill base and athleticism to reach a high ceiling of potential in the long term.