Young And Trending In The NBA: Julius Randle Impresses

In the first installment of our NBA Young and Trending series, we look at the strides that Julius Randle has made this season, and the struggles of Dante Exum

As part of a series, we’ll be chronicling the status of young NBA players and whether they are trending up or down here at the halfway point in the season.

Trending Up

Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers 

The Los Angeles Lakers are back.

Okay, maybe not, but following the prior two seasons that were leeched by the legend named after an expensive type of beef, the Lakers entered this year with one of the more exciting young rosters in the league.

Their arsenal includes a bevy of productive veterans, an up-and-coming coach, and two prized former No. 2 overall draft picks. Also at their disposal is a somewhat forgotten first round pick; someone who is playing like the best young player on the roster. His name is Julius Randle.

D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram receive a lot of hype, but Randle has quietly become a catalyst for the Lakers’ improvement. His 13.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game averages this month have helped the Lakers win more games in January than they did in all of December.

One might think Randle has improved his pre-draft weaknesses of shooting to attain Trending Up status, but he actually hasn’t. Instead, pre-existing Randle’s strengths are being accentuated by the Lakers coaching staff.

An adept rebounder due to his 6-foot-9, 250 pound frame and 8-cylinder hemi-powered motor, Randle has more freedom to push the ball both in primary and secondary fast breaks this season. He hasn’t been particularly efficient in these situations, but he is capable of gearing up to turn even-numbered breaks into odd, and also gearing down to survey the defense and execute plays with some sneakily ambidextrous passing.

The stress that a Point Forward can put on a defense is tremendous. Just ask anyone who has schemed for Draymond Green. At this stage in his career, Randle being comfortable in these situations outweighs his occasional breakdowns. It’s also one of the reasons he leads the Lake Show in rebounds and is second on the team in assists.

In the half court, Randle’s inept shooting ability is magnified. Here, he is often afforded space on the perimeter when he has the ball. In these situations, Randle excels at channeling instructions similar to what my college coach would incessantly yell at our big men – “GO SCREEN FOR SOMEBODY!!!” In other words, “Go execute a dribble-hand-off.”

Randle morphs into a human bludger in the half court when in dribble-hand-off mode, turning and sprinting at anyone guarding a Laker sharpshooter.

Amongst forwards with 20 games played, Julius “D-H-O” Randle leads the NBA in screen assists with 3.5 per game. These hand-off screen assists often result in traditional assists as well.

To further perpetuate the idea of Randle developing into “Draymond Green Light”, let’s examine an area at which Green is bewilderingly great – defending the rim (i.e. Defensive FG% at the rim). Of the 50 NBA players that defend an average of four shots per game within six feet of the basket, there are only four players under 6-foot-10 in the top 30: Green, Tristan Thompson, Al-Farouq Aminu, and, you guessed it, Julius Randle.

Regardless of the cherries picked to produce that figure, Randle’s improvement in this area is undeniable (his 55.7 percent DFG% at the rim this season is 9.2 percent lower than last season).

While the threat that Randle poses in transition, half court, and on defense is similar to that posed by Draymond, Randle is more of a BMW 3 Series compared to the BMW “Dae Dae” 7 Series that’s filling lanes in Oracle. What Randle is missing is fine tuning. This comes with age. More importantly, he is missing a jump shot. With any semblance of a consistent jump shot, Randle could become the sports car the Lakers need to actually be considered “back”.

Trending Down 

Dante Exum, Utah Jazz 

The Utah Jazz were in a unique position before the 2014 NBA Draft in which they held the No. 5 and No. 23 picks. They already had blossoming young stars Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert on the roster (in addition to Derrick Favors). What they needed was another rising star to round out their back court. Looking back, it appears the closest they came was selecting Rodney Hood at number 23, not Dante Exum at 5.

The concerns with Exum’s game start with his inability to consistently shoot the basketball or make plays for others. Standing 6-foot-6, Exum has above average size for a point guard. Other than his physical profile and athleticism, however, there isn’t much else about his game that is above average.

Exum is finishing at the rim at a league-average rate, but his perimeter shooting continues to be atrocious, especially from three-point range. Of Exum’s first 72 three-pointers this season, 69 came with at least four feet of space (otherwise considered “open”).

During that span, Exum was shooting 30 percent on “open” shots (4-6 feet of space), and a woeful 28 percent on the shots considered “wide open” (6+ feet of space). Add in that none of Exum’s made three-pointers have come unassisted, and the red flags raised by draft scouts are approaching validation.

With Exum’s size and explosive athletic ability, a consistent perimeter jump shot isn’t a pre-requisite for playing the point guard position effectively (think young Jason Kidd or young Rajon Rondo). What is a requirement, however, is sound ball handling and passing – two things with which Exum struggles.

Exum is averaging only 3.1 assists per 36 minutes this season, good for 7th on the team. This stems from a lack of creativity in pick-and-roll. Exum isn’t a bad passer (he actually has a delightful little sky hook pass in his repertoire), but his handle is a completely different story. After pouring through film, I consider his ball handling ability to be comparable to that of the athletic guy you hooped with in high school whose primary sport was football – Point A to Point B without much deception and a heavy reliance on athletic ability. To illustrate, here is a clip of one of Exum’s favorite initial dribble moves:

No, seriously, that and a Bob Cousy-like right-to-left crossover basically cover Exum’s dribble move repository.

Exum can make simple reads and toss in the occasional finish, but he is merely a replacement-level player in the NBA because of his poor handle and unreliable jump shot. Replacement-level might even be a generous distinction. Exum’s -3.3 Net Rating is last on the Jazz and only one of three negative Net Ratings on the team. Even Mr. Replacement-Level himself, Shelvin Mack, plays more than Exum in Utah’s rotation.

Despite his downward-trending status, it is far too early to label Exum as a bust. The 21-year-old Australian is only 17 months removed from a torn ACL. His also plays on a deep and talented  team where minutes fall from the table mostly in the form of scraps. He has already shown signs of being an adept defender, and his physical profile at point guard rivals anyone without a name that rhymes with Bantetokounmpo.

There is hope for Exum, but drastic improvement is necessary. At his age, time is on his side. Based on his play this season, however, the clock is ticking.

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