The NBA Positional Census: Power Forward

Julius Randle

Randle is another guy who has not been able to translate his college stardom to the NBA, and he’s coming up to a crossroads in his career. Because the Lakers are more concerned with preserving their cap space for next summer, Randle is stuck in limbo, unlikely to get the kind of extension lottery talents often receive, since the Lakers are more concerned with preserving their cap space for next summer. This is a make-or-break year for him: He’s playing for a new contract, and there will be serious competition for minutes at the 4 with Larry Nance Jr. and rookie Kyle Kuzma.

At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, Randle still has the same combination of brawn, quickness, and skill that had him pegged as a future NBA star when he was in high school. There just aren’t many guys his size who can move as well as he does and who are as capable of making plays. But he comes with significant limitations. He’s neither long (7-foot wingspan) nor particularly explosive in the air, so he’s not effective playing bully ball in the paint: He was only in the 15th percentile league-wide of post scorers. Randle is at his best operating in space and whipping passes on the move, and it’s easy to fall in love when watching his highlight reel:

All those flashy plays, though, haven’t helped the Lakers much. Los Angeles has been one of the worst teams in the NBA since Randle came into the league, and he is a big reason. The Lakers had a net rating of minus-10.2 when he was on the floor last season, the worst of any of their rotation players, and a net rating of minus-3.5 when he was off, the best mark for anyone on their roster. Randle’s unique skill set is the worst of both worlds: It’s difficult to build a lineup around a 4 with his strengths, and it’s almost impossible to hide his weaknesses. He can’t shoot to save his life, and he gets roasted on defense. Nance is a better defender and Kuzma is a better shooter: While they may not have Randle’s upside, they don’t have his downsides either.

There was hope Randle could develop a jumper in the NBA, but it hasn’t happened yet. While he’s a decent free throw shooter (a career 71.7 percent from the charity stripe on 3.6 attempts per game), his numbers from the field are abysmal: He shot 31.8 percent on 66 attempts from 16–24 feet last year, and he’s 27-of-99 (27.3 percent) in his career from 3. A player with Randle’s handle and speed would be practically unguardable if defenders had to respect his shot. Instead, they can just back off and force him to come into them. He’s not long enough to power through a pure athlete at the 4 like Al-Farouq Aminu. He has to raise up and shoot before it ever gets to this point:

And while his jumper may not be correctable, at least in the short term, his defensive effort is. Like most young scorers, Randle never had to expend much energy defensively in his developmental years, and could always count on his athleticism to bail him out when necessary. He will never be a good shot-blocker in the NBA, but his strength and quickness means he could be an effective positional defender who can switch screens and be a cog in a good defense. However, that means Randle has to keep his head up and understand what his responsibilities are. Count the errors in this sequence: He makes a lazy closeout on Zach Randolph, lets him drive in a straight line and doesn’t re-route him, and then falls for a pump-fake and gives up an open look at the rim:

The days of the Lakers letting Randle play through his mistakes are over. They don’t have a first-round pick this season, and they are trying to be good enough to lure elite free agents like LeBron James and Paul George next summer. Randle will have to earn his minutes. The good news is newly acquired center Brook Lopez could be the perfect frontcourt partner for him. Lopez turned himself into a 3-point shooter last season (shooting 34.6 percent from 3 on 5.2 attempts per game), which should create driving lanes for Randle in the half court. Lopez’s sheer size (7 feet and 275 pounds) means he will be more of a deterrent at the front of the rim than anyone Randle has played with. If Lopez can handle the rim protection, Randle is strong enough to keep players from establishing deep position on him and quick enough to stay in front of them on the perimeter. It’s now or never for Randle. If he can’t succeed playing next to Lopez, he’s going to end up backing him up.