Julius Randle wanted to go home this year — for a shot at the title. And sure enough, the Dallas native led the Kentucky Wildcats to the 2014 NCAA Final Four in Arlington, Texas. “It’s just what I asked for,” Randle said in April.
By playing an aggressive style known as “bully-ball,” the 6-foot-9-inch freshman led the Wildcats in scoring (15 points per game) and rebounding (10.4) while setting a school record for a freshman with 24 double-doubles.
Randle also faced double- and triple-teams all season, including when the Wildcats lost to eventual champion Connecticut in the Final Four.
And because he often faced such defenses, he spent most of his time at the free throw line, where he racked up about half of his 599 points last season.
But, as expected, he declared for the NBA Draft after the season, and he’s expected to be a top-10 pick June 26, even if there are health concerns about him: he reportedly needs surgery to remove a screw in his right foot.
Randle has said he is fine and won’t need surgery, but multiple NBA executives say the potential issue still raises a concern. “Yes, anything below the waist is a concern,” said one Eastern Conference executive.
Randle has often been compared with a fellow lefthanded forward who can bully his way around the paint, Memphis Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph, a two-time All-Star and double-double machine.
But scouts, executives, and others in the league are mixed about that comparison.
“When Zach Randolph came into the league after his freshman year at Michigan State, he was [really good],” said a league source familiar with both players. “He could score, he could do all the things he was doing right now. He was kind of a surprise pick in some ways, his performance was. He was really, really good his rookie year.
“Again, this kid is a safe pick. Against teams without length, who play an undersized power forward, he’ll probably play pretty well. Not a high, high upside.”
Randle’s physical style and muscle-bound 250-pound frame are enticing, though he has smaller-than-average hands for his size (8.25 inches wide) and a less-than-impressive wingspan (7 feet).
“He has an incredible body, but he has very average length, doesn’t have really long arms, has tiny hands,” said an Eastern Conference scout.
“If you allow him to go over his right shoulder and shoot with his left hand, he’s not going to miss. His right-hand development and him trusting it enough to go to it is going to be key, because right now, he doesn’t have any confidence in it at all.
“But if he does, with his versatility for his size, he’s going to be a bear to guard. Because if you put a big on him, he’s going to step out on the floor and shoot from 15-17 feet, or put it on the floor and go around him. And if you put a small guy on him, you’re going to put him in the post and he’s going to absolutely abuse him.
“He’s a good rebounder. I don’t think he’s a great rebounder. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. I think the main two areas for him are how he’s going to adapt to being able to finish versus length against taller guys and then the use of his right hand.”
One Western Conference scout said he wasn’t bothered by Randle’s arms/hands.
“I’m not bought into the short arms and if he’s undersized,” the scout said. “I think he’s a power forward. He’s not Zach Randolph, but he’s a guy that’s going to be able to score the basketball. Against backups, I think that’s where he’s going to be.
“Obviously can score from the elbows and drive it left and get to the rim. He’s great on the block. But it was time for him to leave [Kentucky] — they were going to double- and triple-team him. He faced that all of last year and he would’ve done that again.
“I think his game translates to the NBA, but I think it’s going to be as a backup, a guy that can come in and score. Obviously he’s got to develop a consistent 15-, 17-, 19-foot jump shot.’’
“He’s got to be a facing [power forward] as well, rather than just a back-to-the-basket [forward], or a driver left. He’s got to work on going right and staying right. And he’s got to develop a jump shot.”
The jump shot is a key issue, said one Eastern Conference executive.
“The thing that scares me a little bit is the fact that he’s not a great shooter, and what will happen in our league is, once or twice, he’ll go through the league once and teams will say, ‘All right, back off this kid and make him shoot it,’ ” the executive said.
“And then, now he’s really got to work on being a consistent shooter from 18 feet, at 6-8 feet or whatever. He’s got to be able to do that. And again, for the first time in his life, he’ll put a ton of time in on working in on that part of it. He’ll get the best instruction he’s ever had in his life. I can see him getting better there.”
Aside from his measurables, and the fact that he relies too much on his left hand, Randle has a motor that NBA teams love.
“He’s a terrific competitor,” said one Western Conference executive. “NBA guys like to talk about motors, well, this guy has got a motor. He plays hard all the time. He’s a factor in every game he plays in because of his motor and his aggressiveness.”
Said an Eastern Conference executive, “He plays hard. He’s in attack mode. He has a very quick first step. For his size, he’s really going to be able to get to the basket. I love his toughness. He’ll battle, he’ll compete.”
But Randle’s aggressive on-court nature could be toned down a bit, said one Eastern Conference scout.
“He kind of relies on bully-ball too much,” the scout said. “That’s why he struggled against LSU in those two games, among some other ones. Just because he couldn’t bully LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant III.”
Said an Eastern Conference executive, “He used his strength to overpower these guys in college. And unfortunately, at this level, you’re not overpowering anybody. You’ve got guys that are eating that up. They’ll be playing volleyball with his stuff. Seriously.”
As the league source mentioned, there are questions about Randle’s upside, and how high it might be, but there are several areas he can improve.
“I think he has the talent to get better and succeed at as a smaller [power forward] because he’s so athletic and he can put it on the floor a little bit and he can shoot it a little bit, but his shot and his handle need to get much better,” said an Eastern Conference scout.
Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.