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Julius Randle’s early improvement providing hope

AP Photo/Alonzo Adams

It’s only been three games, but it’s already evident that Lakers forward Julius Randle put some hard work into his game during the offseason. While his counting stats from his de-facto rookie season last year looked fine (11.3 points, 10.2 rebounds), his overall performance left many wondering if he’d ever live up to his massive potential.

He played in part of just one game in 2014-15 before breaking his leg, ending his season before it even truly got started. Randle was healthy for 81 games last year, but struggled with confidence issues throughout due in large part to Byron Scott’s failure to properly get through to so many of his young players.

A player can have all the talent in the world, but if they’re not confident in their own abilities then they’ll often be hard-pressed to maximize their potential. There were times last season when Randle looked ready to break out, and other times in which he looked completely lost on both ends of the floor. This, of course, is to be expected from a 21-year-old playing his first pro season on a terrible team.

A huge source of headaches for those that watched Randle as a rookie was his bricklaying tendencies on offense. He flashed a versatile offensive game during his lone collegiate season at Kentucky but last year looked like a major work-in-progress. The shot chart tells you all you need to know:

shotchart_1477942966083

NOT GREAT, BOB.

Randle may not look the part at over 250 pounds, but he’s extremely quick and springy. He doesn’t have the longest arms but has shown a knack for being able to convert funky, contorted shots near the rim. Too often last season, though, he would just settle for inefficient jumpers from the midrange and clanked his way to a shooting percentage of just under 43 percent.

In the small sample size with which we have to work under Luke Walton’s watch, Randle seems to have transformed his offensive game plan. Take a quick gander at the 2016-17 shot chart to this point:

shotchart_1477943460473

89.5 percent shooting at the rim is obviously unsustainable, but the fact that he’s using his athleticism advantage over more slow-footed bigs to get to the basket is a very encouraging sign.

He’s taking smarter, more efficient shots, and it’s no mystery as to why his shooting percentage is up to nearly 68 percent in the early going. At least so far he’s shown good discipline in avoiding jacking the long-twos that got him in trouble so often in the past.

Randle has excellent ball-handling skills for a player at his position, which means he’s capable of running some Blake Griffinesque style one-man fast breaks. We saw flashes of that last season, but this seemingly new-and-improved Randle has been more willing to distribute on the break than the one we saw most often just trying to bully his way to the rim last year.

He already has10 assists on the year (3.3 per game) after averaging just 1.8 in 2015-16. Having another playmaker on the floor makes the respective jobs of D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson easier, as well. Those two can spot-up on the perimeter at times rather than being forced to run everything themselves:

Again, that’s not a pass we’re likely to have seen Randle making a year ago. Instead, he’d have gone straight up and tried to bowl his way into a low-percentage shot between Andre Roberson and a closing Steven Adams. He saw Russell flashing into the open space and hit him with a perfect assist.

We heard fans clamoring late last season and over the summer for Larry Nance to take Randle’s spot in the starting unit, but those calls have been silenced through the first three games. As the season progresses it’ll be a matter of consistency for Randle. He can be a matchup nightmare when he’s playing at full capacity and confidence.

The Lakers are just 1-2 to start, but they’ve been competitive against three teams expected to be in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt once it’s all said and done. Randle’s play has been a major catalyst for them. Should he continue to improve, his potential emergence should accelerate the Lakers’ path back toward respectability.

 

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