Stanford’s Chasson Randle has a handle on both basketball, life

Shooting guard-turned-point guard Chasson Randle helps others on the court with his improved passing skills, but he's been helping others off the court for a while, too.

Robert Stanton/Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of basketball things you could talk about with Stanford senior point guard Chasson Randle these days.

You could talk about how he is about to reach the 2,000-point mark for his career; that should happen in Thursday night’s big Pac-12 home matchup against seventh-ranked Arizona. Or you could talk about how the Stanford all-time scoring record – Todd Lichti, with 2,336 points – is well within reach before Randle leaves Palo Alto. Or you could talk about the gradual transition head coach Johnny Dawkins has helped Randle with, turning him from a score-first combo guard into more of a point guard, something that ought to help his chances to play professionally. Or you could simply talk about the excitement of his team’s unexpected run to the Sweet 16 last season.

And on a recent evening, when Randle called me from the airport in San Jose on the way to a road trip, we spoke about all those things, sure. But we also spoke about some things that you don’t typically get into with a big-time college athlete.

Like the master’s degree work he is doing with Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford social psychologist who studies race and inequality in criminal justice. She also happens to be a MacArthur Fellow. You know, the Genius Grant?

Yes, the top scorer in the Pac-12 has a basketball mentor who used to be Duke’s all-time leading scorer in Dawkins, and in Eberhardt, Randle has an academic mentor who was recently awarded perhaps the most prestigious grant in America.

Those Stanford kids, man.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is a huge problem in our American justice system,” Randle told me the other evening. “The fact is that kids are going from school into juvenile detention centers and back into schools – then back into juvenile detention centers, or jails, or prisons. The hope is to come up with intervention to stop that process.”

We’ll get back to Randle’s experience in the juvenile detention system in a minute, because there’s a good story there. But there’s also a good story about how Stanford is one of those few schools that’s able to remain among the nation’s elite in academics as well as in the revenue sports of football and basketball. It’s not that big-time Division I athletes can’t excel in school. They can. It’s just that their priorities end up being so focused toward sports that it’s extraordinarily difficult to chase both goals at a high level. Ask any coach who has had to worry about keeping his team’s academic record up so athletics can keep going. It’s not easy.

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And not to sound elitist, but things at Stanford are, well, different.

“He’s a well-rounded kid, and that’s what we want to have with our student-athletes, a well-rounded experience, a balance in what they do,” Dawkins told me. “We feel our guys can max out in everything they do. You can be great in a number of things.”

Look, I know Stanford isn’t Alabama in football, or Kentucky in basketball. But in that difficult balancing act between high-level sports and high-level academics, I’m not sure any school is better.

Anyway – back to Randle. His master’s thesis is about how children who have been incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities are perceived by peers and teachers once they have finished doing their time. He’s focusing on a group of kids in Oakland who attend an after-school program. About 40 percent of the kids in that program have been incarcerated. Randle has about 25 pages of his thesis written already, but there’s still plenty of in-person research to be done. Nationally, some 70 percent of kids who are incarcerated in juvenile detention centers don’t graduate high school, Randle said. It’s a problem with no easy solution.

Why study this? Randle’s reason is personal. He was raised in Rock Island, Ill., one of the Quad Cities on the Illinois-Iowa border. His dad worked for the cable company, his mom handled insurance claims. At a young age, his mom impressed on him the importance of humanitarianism. When Randle was a kid, the family would visit soup kitchens, organize food drives, donate to clothing drives.

When Randle was an elite basketball recruit who was starting to get big-time Division I interest, his middle-school coach pushed him toward something more than basketball. The coach works at a juvenile correctional facility in Davenport, Iowa. He nudged Randle toward visiting the facility, striking up relationships with the kids there, trying to both change kids’ lives and give himself perspective in his own. Randle kept visiting, through high school and even when he came home during breaks from college.

One of those personal moments sticks with him today, and gives him motivation both on the basketball court as well as in his studies.

“I was meeting with this one kid, a one-on-one session, just talking about how he grew up, who he was as a person, where he saw himself going in life,” Randle told me. “He started out pretty calm. The conversation was going great. I asked him something along lines of, ‘Where do you see yourself after this?’ The kid was 17, almost 18, not much younger than me. And he told me he was facing 75 to life. That was something that really hit me hard. The kid’s got his whole life to live, and the fact he could possibly live all of it behind bars – it hit me hard.”

There are lessons there, Randle told me, lessons we can all take for our own life. Focus on each day. Make the most of a second chance because not everyone gets that. And stay optimistic in the worst of times: “In the darkest of times, the light can still show itself,” Randle said.

I asked Dawkins how all these off-court interests affect Randle on the basketball court. I loved his answer.

“It makes him a better basketball player,” Dawkins said. “He loves this game. No one works as much as Chasson. He’s as committed as anyone I’ve coached. (Having these academic interests) allows him some perspective on what to do. He’s had less lulls than other players because he can get some positive release from what he does away from the basketball court.”

Randle has fully transitioned from a combo guard into one of the most valuable point guards in the country, albeit a point guard who still has a penchant to score. He’s among the nation’s leaders in percentage of his team’s minutes that he’s on the floor. He’s averaging a career-high 19.8 points and 2.7 assists for a team that’s among the nation’s best at avoiding turnovers; Stanford ranks 13th in the nation in turnover percentage, according to KenPom.com. He’s making 39.3 percent of his 3-pointers and 87.7 percent of his free throws, which has helped him rank 59th nationally in offensive rating.

Transitioning to an increased role as a facilitator has been more a change in mentality than anything for Randle. He needs to know when it’s best for him to score and when it’s best for him to dish.

If Stanford is to contend in the Pac-12 this season, the Cardinal really need this home win against Arizona, an upset that could change the outlook of the conference. If Stanford is to make another run in March, that’ll be on Randle’s shoulders, too.

“He has more on his shoulders this year than any other year,” Dawkins said. “When you lose two guys to the NBA, you need guys stepping up even more. He’s done that.”

I asked Randle about how he’s able to handle the pressure of being The Guy for a team that’s 4-1 in the Pac-12 and how he balances that pressure with the Stanford academics. I loved this answer, too. In a way, it’s the ideal mentality for college athletics, something we should all aim for.

“I think of myself and my teammates as unique people, as unique individuals,” Randle said. “We don’t settle for mediocrity and just the norm. We try to be as different as we can in every sense of the word. I value both athletics and academics. Why not try to excel at everything?”

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.