The Randle Problem: Analyzing Julius Randle's weaknesses on defense

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

There have been plenty of stories published that sing the praises of Julius Randle's strengths as an NBA prospect, which is well deserved since he's a rebounding machine, has a killer instinct, and he's a very good ball-handler for his size. But there haven't been enough articles that focus on his glaring weakness, which is defense.

Randle had a productive offensive game in the Final Four against Wisconsin with 16 points and 5 rebounds, but he was poor on the defensive end. The 19-year-old freshman didn't always pay for his mistakes, but Kentucky allowed 1.07 points per possession partially due to Randle's lack of off-ball awareness and his inability to defend the paint.

With the 2014 national championship between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Connecticut Huskies starting tonight at 9:10 PM, let's take a more in-depth look at Julius Randle's defense using film and statistics:

The Randle Film

If you've been following my series of draft articles throughout the year, you know that Julius Randle is a guy I was extremely high on before the season. But as the year progressed, his stock dropped more and more, so I put him at #11 on my second draft big board in early March. The statistics were there, but I wasn't very impressed whenever I took the time to break down his game on a play-by-play basis.

Off-ball awareness

After watching Randle all season, it has become very obvious that he has a low basketball IQ. I have a hard time understanding how some label him "NBA ready" when no professional coach will give him heavy minutes due to his unreliability on the defensive end.

The 6-foot-9 power forward gets caught watching the ball more than any player projected in the lottery -- I'd go as far to say that he might be the worst off-ball big man in recent history that could go top ten. To put it simply, Randle may improve, but he won't quickly enough to become reliable for extended (and important) minutes during the first few seasons of his career.

Juliusrandleoffballwowlol_large

Randle allowed wide open three-pointers on three occasions above. Wisconsin hit two of them, but they exemplify the types of mistakes Randle has made throughout the season. If players like Sam Dekker and Duje Dukan are finding open space against Randle, what will happen when NBA teams try to stretch him? I don't think it'll be pretty.

This is a skill that can be improved upon, but it will take a lot of time to maturate, and some players never do anyway. Pre-draft workouts and interviews will tell a lot about Julius Randle's ability to understand complicated defensive schemes (what Kentucky does is vanilla compared to the NBA) and his willingness to work hard to fix his defensive weaknesses.

Poor rim protector

Julius Randle has very good lateral quickness, so the potential is there for him to someday be an adequate pick-and-roll and perimeter defender, but he must revamp his technique and learn to stay locked in at all times.

For now, Randle's mental lapses are inexcusable, especially since he has not progressed his defense at all throughout the season. I thought Wisconsin did a poor job of taking advantage of this considering the amount of success they had whenever they attacked him.

First, looking at Randle's help and pick-and-roll defense, it's clear that this is an area he must improve. NBA teams will expose Randle whether he's directly engaged as the screen defender or as the weak side helper.

When he has the duties of containing the ball-handler, Randle has had trouble containing penetration throughout the season. He sometimes gets caught in no man's land, which gives the ball-handler the ability to drive and dish, pull-up, or go all the way to the rim. Against Wisconsin, he simply made the wrong decision in the few times he was involved in the pick-and-roll, by sticking too much to his man and not "showing" on the drive.

As a perimeter defender, Randle has had his moments this year. He's bouncy, so he's able to move very quickly, but it can also get him in trouble, which is exactly what happened versus Wisconsin. During many instances, Randle turned his body, showing the ball-handler a direct lane to the rim.

Perimeter-orientated bigs are the hot new commodity in the NBA, so Randle will be tasked with defending them nearly every night. Even though the upside is there, I have concerns about his ability to quickly adapt to a more "spread" game at the pro level.

The Randle Stats

Defensive stats can never tell the whole story, but there are some interesting trends in relation to a player's ability to translate their games to the NBA. ESPN's Kevin Pelton found that college steal and block rates are important for projecting big men's future success in the pros.

If that holds true, then the forecast for Randle's defense is all rain and thunder. In 39 games, he only has 30 blocks and 20 steals, or 0.8 blocks and 0.5 steals per game.

Stats primer

Steals and blocks are self explanatory, but "steal rate" and "block rate" are simply the rate a player tallies a steal or block during each possession they are on the court. For example, if Player X has a "BLK%" or "Block Rate" of 8.5, then they end an opponent's possession approximately 8.5 percent of the time with a block.

How Randle compares

I used DraftExpress' measurement database to find players drafted in the lottery from the past 10 years with builds similar to Julius Randle. On the chart below, 9 other players are listed alongside him:

Name Drafted Steal Rate Block Rate Height (Feet) Wingspan (Inches)
Ed Davis 2010, 13th 0.9 9.5 6-9.75 84
Kelly Olynyk 2013, 13th 1.6 5.1 7-0 81.75
Tyler Hansbrough 2009, 13th 2.1 1.0 6-9.5 83.5
Thaddeus Young 2007, 12th 2.4 1.5 6-7.5 83.5
Kevin Love 2008, 5th 1.4 5.0 6-9.5 83.25
Blake Griffin 2009, 1st 1.9 3.6 6-10 83.25
Julius Randle Projected: Top 7 1.0 2.5 6-9 83
Cody Zeller 2013, 4th 2.1 4.3 7-0.25 82.75
Markieff Morris 2011, 13th 1.9 4.9 6-9.25 82.75
Marcus Morris 2011, 14th 1.7 2.4 6-8.75 82

Randle has the second worst steal rate and the fourth worst block rate. Even more worrisome, Randle is second worst with a combined block and steal rate of only 3.5. This puts him the same statistical category of a player like Tyler Hansbrough, who was drafted 13th in 2009.

Yet, Randle is currently projected as a top 7 pick. Kevin Love (#5, 2008), Cody Zeller (#4, 2013), and Blake Griffin (#1, 2009), all blow him away statistically even though Randle could be selected in the same spot of the draft.

You may be asking, "are steals really that important for a power forward?" Well, not exactly, but historically they have been a good barometer to predict how a player will translate to the NBA. To name a few poor defensive players from recent years with bad steal rates, there is Kevin Love (1.4), Joe Alexander (1.3), Hasheem Thabeet (1.1), Spencer Hawes (1.0), and Ike Diogu (0.8).

Stats can never tell the whole story, but three of those mentioned players are busts (Alexander, Thabeet, Diogu), and the other two (Love, Hawes) are scabs on the defensive end. It won't be surprising if Julius Randle is added to one of those two lists years from now.

The Randle Body

Julius Randle has a very unusual body; as Jonathan Tjarks put it, "Randle is built like a Tyrannosaurus Rex: all torso and no arms." With a short 72-inch wingspan, he could have difficulties defending in the NBA, just like he already does at the college level.

Short wingspan

Tjarks wrote an article that goes in-depth on Julius Randle's wingspan problem, but it's worth rehashing again. Randle is often compared to players like Zach Randolph (because of his brute force) and Jared Sullinger (because of his rebounding ability), but both comparisons are quite unfair.

That's because, unlike them, Randle has a tiny wingspan, which thwarts his overall upside. Take a look at how Randle's body measures up next to some other players he has often been compared to:

Name Drafted Steal Rate Block Rate Height (Feet) Wingspan (Inches)
Zach Randolph 2001, 19th 2.1 3.7 6-9. 89
J.J. Hickson 2008, 19th 1.4 4.8 6.9 87
Jared Sullinger 2012, 21st 2.2 4.0 6-9 85.25
David Lee 2005, 30th 2.2 2.9 6-9 84
Julius Randle Projected: Top 7 1.0 2.5 6-9 83

All five players are 6-foot-9 in shoes, but Randle has the smallest wingspan. Randle is also significantly worse than all of them in block and steal rates, which raises the same concerns as we previously discussed.

Setting "Z-Bo" expectations for Randle isn't fair at all. Randolph has an enormous 89-inch wingspan, which is why he has been one of the best rebounders in the NBA the past decade. Randolph has 6 inches on Randle, so it's unrealistic to expect similar production on the defensive end.

As we reviewed in the film section, Randle is often out of position when he has to protect the rim, but even when he's where he has to be, he's not very effective.

Randle has been dunked on far too many times this season due to his incapability to elevate high enough to block or effectively contest a shot. Another 6 inches would be the difference between a block or getting posterized, just like he did there. It hurts him when a ball-handler is coming at him, but it also does on the post, when it comes to contesting shots or preventing entry passes.

Remember that play I outlined from the Wisconsin game, when Frank Kaminsky established low post positioning on Randle? That situation was a serious problem for Randle all season long. But he competes hard on the post and his 250-pound frame made it difficult for lanky college players to get by him, so he didn't pay for it very often, but that story will change in the NBA.

At the next level, Randle will match-up against players as bulky as him on a nightly basis, but he'll face stronger and longer opponents very often, too. No matter how much Randle develops his skills, he'll always be at a disadvantage because of his short and stocky build.

Closing Thoughts

Julius Randle deserves to be in the discussion as a late lottery pick, but I wouldn't feel comfortable drafting him in the top 10, and I certainly think he's a big mistake as a top 5 or 6 pick. I love his on-court attitude and I get the impression that he wants to be a great player, but every human has their limits.

As I alluded to before, pre-draft workouts and interviews will be very important, as teams will get an idea of what's going on inside of his head.

Julius Randle could be a good role player at some point of his career, but he has a long way to go on the defensive end if he wants to receive playing time. I hope that this article shed some light on aspects of his game that go beyond the box score.

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