Julius Randle
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE/Getty Images

Julius Randle producing dominant offensive second half

by Jim Eichenhofer

File it under the easier-said-than-done category, but somewhere near the top of every opposing team’s Julius Randle scouting report, there are two lines: “DON’T LET HIM GO LEFT” and “DON’T LET HIM DRIVE TO THE BASKET.”

Possessing a quick first step and checking in at 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, the southpaw is one of the NBA’s most imposing players when he gets a head of steam going to the hoop. That’s one reason he’s attempted over 450 drives this season, among the most by any of the league’s power forwards or centers. After being just an occasional three-point threat in his first four seasons, Randle has added another weapon to his arsenal since arriving in New Orleans, helping him emerge as a top-25 scorer since the All-Star break. Over the Pelicans’ 18 games, Randle is averaging 24.2 points, the top offensive stretch of his five-year NBA career. This month alone, he has a career-best 45-point eruption vs. Portland, a 34-point night against Sacramento and a pair of 30-point outings vs. Utah and Dallas. The 24-year-old had closed February by tallying 35 points against his previous team, the Lakers.

Opposing defenses have responded by trying to swarm him when he starts penetrating into the paint, but they now must also respect Randle’s greatly improved three-point jumper. After making a total of only 37 treys with Los Angeles in four seasons, he is 62/184 in 2018-19, a career-high rate of 33.7 percent.

“The game plan is always to take a player’s best strength away, and his biggest strength is getting to the rim,” said Pelicans forward Stanley Johnson, who faced Randle twice a year when Johnson played for Detroit. “Sometimes teams have to give up his three-point shot because they say, ‘We can’t deal with what you do best.’ But when he gets that going, that’s when you’re stuck (as a defense).”

“Defenses have to account for that,” Randle said of his improved ability to score from the perimeter. “I’m sure they’d rather me shoot (from outside) than get into the paint, where I’m more dangerous. But if I’m knocking (threes) down they have to adjust to it, and from there I’m able to make plays. It’s definitely something I’ve improved on as the season has gone along. I’m more and more confident in it, and when it’s coming in the flow of the offense, it feels good.”

Randle explained that not long after he joined New Orleans in free agency last July, Alvin Gentry told him he wanted Randle to become comfortable shooting more three-pointers. It’s a skill that the majority of NBA big men are trying to add, even if they’ve been anchored in the paint previously.

“Gentry called me as soon as I signed and wanted me to do that,” Randle said. “I worked on it all summer. Then the opportunity came and I tried to take advantage of it.”

“He’s shot them well enough and he’s made timely threes,” Gentry said. “It has to be a little bit of a concern for the defense. That has opened up his game a little bit more. That was a surprise to me with his game – I didn’t realize he could be that efficient on threes. But he’s shot the ball well there and it’s opened up driving lanes for him when guys close out on him.”

Randle’s bread-and-butter, though, remains his ability to dribble past, around and sometimes through defenders at will, giving the Pelicans a reliable option when the game is tight and they need an important basket.

“He’s one of the best rim attackers in the game right now,” Johnson said. “He’s up there with guys like Giannis (Antetokounmpo), LeBron (James). The way he plays the game and puts pressure on defenses, it reminds me of Giannis or Joel Embiid. You see him put 45 on people’s heads. It’s like you know what’s coming, but you can’t really stop it.”

“It’s hard to argue with that,” Gentry said of Johnson’s opinion that Randle is a top-five rim attacker. “Especially when you see what he’s been doing and who he’s doing it against, some of the bigger, stronger players in this league.”

The Pelicans have also been impressed with the strides Randle has made as a passer; he’s averaging 3.1 assists, including 3.5 as a starter. That skill comes in handy when a player moves even further up an opponent’s scouting report, with so many of New Orleans’ top offensive weapons sidelined recently.

“At times when he puts the ball down there are not two or three guys coming at him, but even four,” Gentry said. “He’s doing a good job of finding guys when that happens.”

Johnson: “Teams are starting to triple-team him when he puts the ball on the deck. He’s getting the highest form of respect from other teams.”

Just four full seasons into his pro career – he only played in one game as a rookie due to injury – Randle is now looking forward to trying to make another big jump next season.

“It’s cool. It’s what I worked so hard for in the summer,” Randle said of being one of the NBA’s most improved players in ’18-19. “Shooting the ball, expanding my offensive game, being more versatile. I have a lot I can get better at, too. That is what’s the more exciting thing, that I’ve gotten better from last year, but I’ve got a lot more I can (improve). That’s the exciting part for me.”

“I can’t wait to see what he does, because he’s so young, darn near my age,” said Johnson, 22. “I’m sure he’s going to shoot even better next year. It’s going to be very, very hard to guard him. I don’t know how people are going to deal with him.”

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