Julius Randle contests a shot by Washington's John Wall on Oct. 25, 2017.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Randle's Versatility Key to Lakers' Defensive Success

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

On two crunch-time possessions against the defending champions, Julius Randle found himself switched onto one of the greatest scorers in the world.

The power forward held his own both times, locking down Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. These huge stops allowed the Lakers to take Warriors into overtime, though they fell in the final seconds.

Randle’s ability to switch onto opposing guards has been the biggest weapon of the Lakers’ eighth-ranked defense this season.

Opponents have tried to pick on the Lakers’ small-ball center, and most have come away fruitless thanks to Randle’s blend of speed, footwork and conditioning.

Randle has been isolated by opponents more than any other player in the league this season, except Houston’s Ryan Anderson (a known defensive liability).

But opponents have come to learn that Randle is no longer a defender that can be picked on. They have shot just 14-of-46 on isolation possessions against him.

That 30.4 percent clip is the best defensive mark by any player that has faced at least 30 iso shots. Only former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol has a comparable clip among bigs (5-of-15), though he has been isolated just a third of the time Randle has.

Randle’s isolations have frequently come against guards who think they can use a few dribbles to dispatch a 6-foot-9, 240-pound defender. But, as seen in his last-minute stifling of Curry, they tend to be wrong about that.

There is a reason why opposing ball handlers think they can shake off Randle. Last year, he was nowhere near the isolation defender that he is now.

On such possessions in 2016-17, opponents shot 41.3 percent against him. Even more glaring was the rate at which he fouled when isolated, as a ghastly 21.5 percent of those possessions ended with free throws for the opponent.

Head coach Luke Walton attributed this overnight ascension to Randle’s body transformation over the summer.

The 23-year-old came to training camp this year looking unrecognizable in terms of pounds lost and muscle chiseled.

He often showed flashes on both sides of the floor in his first two NBA seasons. But now — thanks to his conditioning — those flashes are one consistent spotlight on his talent.

“He’s so much faster, quicker, jumps higher and can do it for longer periods of time now than he was able to do last year,” Walton said at Friday’s practice.

The motor just doesn’t stop running for Randle, who hustles from the restricted area (around a screen) to the opposite 3-point wing in order to contest a triple from Curry on this play.

Like every player, Randle’s defense is imperfect. He probably could have reacted quicker to his man running out to screen for Curry on the above play. He fouled Nick Young on a corner 3 later in the game.

“Does he still make mistakes? Absolutely,” Walton said. “But he’s aware of them and tries to play the way that we ask him to play.”

And he imposed his presence with the way he played against the defending champs.

When guarded by Randle, Golden State’s guards and wings shot 2-of-10 on the night.

This includes a play where Durant — one of the league’s longest players and best finishers — screens for Curry at the free throw line, and Randle has to have a split-second reaction to leave his man and contest Durant at the rim.

Randle was able to put together this performance despite a frustrating start to the game.

He had been playing well in the first quarter, but was pulled by Walton, who was displeased with how Randle had settled for a pull-up jumper without a pass in the possession.

After an initial shouting match with his coach, Randle put his frustration toward aggravating the Warriors.

“Last year he would have just not talked to me for a couple weeks,” Walton said. “He was angry, which is totally fine.

“I encourage my players to play with passion and emotion, and they’re allowed to be angry as long as they keep it under control and are ready to play when they go back in.”

Randle was certainly prepared, as he ended up playing 21 minutes straight from the middle of the third quarter through the end of overtime.

“Physically, he probably wouldn’t have been able to play at that level (last year),” Walton said.

And Randle has done this without sacrificing much on the offensive end or the glass.

He is averaging 12.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in only 22.2 minutes this season. A bulldozer with the ball, he has shot 71.3 percent in the restricted area (82-of-115) even though defenses aren’t concerned with his jumper.

His 55.5 field goal percentage is 14th in the NBA, and he has a positive plus/minus in five straight games.

During this recent tear, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 63 points in his 134 minutes on the floor.

So much of that success has stemmed from Randle’s defense, and it’s not just his ability to guard on the perimeter.

In all situations, opponents have shot just 40.9 percent from the field when defended by Randle. While that is a stat that is somewhat reliant on team defense, it is promising that Randle is holding foes to a mark that’s 4.8 percent worse than average.

Golden State got a taste of his paint presence on a pair of fourth-quarter stops.

He contains the pick-and-roll and recovers to swat Jordan Bell at the rim. Then he successfully contests a Draymond Green post-up with just three minutes left.

That last play, along with his stops on Curry and Durant, made for three successful defenses against three All-Stars. It was a fitting crescendo for a defensive showcase that gave the Lakers a shot at taking down the champs.

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