Posted Apr 1, 2014 5:45 PM
There was a moment when everything changed, for Julius Randle the Kentucky power forward and certainly for Julius Randle the NBA hopeful.
It was the second week of January, and the timing is important. It's when the Wildcats began SEC play and when Randle was struggling to score. Bad coincidence.
NBA front offices noticed, of course, the way a top prospect could pile up big numbers on Belmont and North Carolina Asheville, although the 27 points and 13 rebounds against Michigan State the third game of a freshman campaign was an instant resumé builder, before the walls started closing in as the degree of difficulty increased with conference play.
Once opponents had time to scout Randle and even play him twice, in other words. The opening run of 20 points or more in four of the first five games -- against Asheville, Northern Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas Arlington -- gave way to a finish of 20 or more in two of the 21 outings in the SEC regular season and tournament. It wasn't just other Wildcats stepping up and easing the scoring burden, either.
The case for Randle as the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft does not exist anymore, the way it did when he went from Dallas to Kentucky as part of the glittering recruiting class in Lexington and the way it really did when he dropped 27 on Michigan State in Chicago. The conversation among NBA executives and scouts has become more like Randle trying to stay in the top six with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas, Jabari Parker of Duke, Dante Exum of Australia and Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State in some order, behind Embiid as the second big man off the board on June 26 and ahead of Indiana's Noah Vonleh as the first true power forward, with Aaron Gordon of Arizona also getting looks at small forward.
Randle has enough of a starting point, though, that he could push back into the top tier if he has impressive individual workouts closer to the draft with more flashes of being an annual All-Star. He is listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds and can handle himself physically in the NBA right now at 19 years old, front offices say. That kind of starting point.
He doesn't have range, a problem, but can score inside, and should be able to in the pros as well. He plays with a passion, which means a desire to get better to go with the time to get better and the NBA-ready body. There are enough positives to prevent Randle from sinking too far the next three months.
"He's going to struggle more offensively because he's very limited offensively," one NBA executive said. "He's got one post move. He's going to put it on the floor and spin back. He's not a good jump shooter. But the thing I like about Randle is his motor. He's going after the ball. I don't want to say he's like Kenneth Faried, but you put him in a game, you know he's going to play hard and you know he's going to get offensive rebounds. But offensively, you're not going to be able to throw him the ball because they can't even do it at Kentucky. He's not putting up the numbers now. Teams have figured out how to play him."
The early Zach Randolph comparisons were also way off. Randolph has a lot more skills on offense, and did when he came out of Michigan State, while Randle is more athletic. There aren't the character questions with Randle that Randolph faced when the Trail Blazers used the No. 19 pick to get him in 2001, after Kwame Brown went first, Eddy Curry fourth, DeSagana Diop eighth, Vladimir Radmanovic 12th, Troy Murphy 14th, Steven Hunter 15th, Kirk Haston 16th and Michael Bradley 17th, and that's just among the bigs. (No. 28: Tony Parker.)
The challenge for Randle is to reclaim the early success at the toughest time of the season, with tough competition every game for an eighth-seeded team that won't see many Eastern Michigans or Cleveland States. He needs good showings. He needs everything to change back.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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