Julius Randle: Dark Horse for 6th Man of the Year
Things did not look good for Lakers forward Julius Randle on opening night: L.A.’s plan to chase two max free agents likely meant letting Randle go in the offseason, his starting spot was usurped by Larry Nance Jr., and rookie Kyle Kuzma’s emergence chipped into his playing time. Shortly into their first game with the Los Angeles Clippers Randle checked in, but was quickly yanked and scolded by coach Luke Walton for his lacking defensive effort. All these factors pointed to a season where Randle would be marginalized into a minimal role for the Lakers. Surprisingly, the exact opposite has happened and Randle has emerged as a key player and a possible 6th man of the year candidate.
Randle has become an effective contributor for the Lakers coming off the bench on both sides of the floor. He is averaging 12.5 ppg and 6.6 rpg, but what has been most impressive is his offensive efficiency. He leads the Lakers in true shooting percentage at 59.9%. When he entered the draft, Randle was thought to be undersized for a power forward because he is only 6’9” and possesses an unimpressive wingspan. Surprisingly, this year he has moved up a position and played most of his minutes at center. Although Randle isn’t as big as most NBA centers, he has found a way to use his quickness and strength to play the position effectively. This is largely due to him losing weight and coming into the season in the best shape of his life. When asked about the positional change he said:
“It's different. For me it's pretty cool because, like I said, it's just effortless. I was able to drop weight and not lose strength, and become even more agile and mobile. 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” (via Silverscreenandroll.com).
He’s also been using his improved quickness to switch out and contain perimeter players. The Lakers currently rank 8th in defensive efficiency and Randle has been a big contributor to that. His individual defensive rating per 100 possessions has improved from 112 last year to 103 this year. The move to center has also helped his offense as well. For the first few years of his career, Randle often played next to true centers that clogged up space in the paint and couldn’t stretch the floor. Now playing at center next to players that can space the floor, he has more room to use his ball-handling skills and quickness to attack the basket and get easy points at the rim. While his three-point shot is still a work in progress, he is dynamic enough at cutting to the rim and crashing the offensive glass that teams have to be mindful of him both in half-court sets and running in transition.
The evolution of Randle’s game should garner some consideration from voters this season. He has been impactful on both ends of the floor and has been the Lakers most reliable option at center most nights. Recent history does not bode well for Randle’s chances to win the award. In the last 10 years, the only forward to win the award was Lamar Odom in 2011. Additionally, voters tend to lean towards players who put up big scoring numbers off the bench. Despite this — Randle’s rebounding, defense, and offensive efficiency have been stellar for a player who is only averaging 22 minutes a game. Even if he doesn’t win the award, his play could still earn him a big contract offer in the offseason.