One of my favorite players to analytically pick apart this season has been Julius Randle. It seemed that most people were in accordance that he was largely overrated, but then Kentucky made a tournament run that confounded everything and inspired hope for his future. Personally, I am not feeling too badly about my earlier synopsis and feel that all of my central hypotheses still hold. I would absolutely not consider him in the lottery, so I may as well follow up on why I refuse to budge on my anti-Randle stance.
A common trend among people who take exception to my ranking of Julius Randle as a non-lottery pick is that they are not convinced that his defense will invariably plague him throughout his NBA career. And it makes sense that some people would be skeptical, as defense is exceptionally difficult to pinpoint either statistically or by casually watching. And even if they acknowledge that he may have been sub-par as a freshman, that is not enough to convince most that he will necessarily be bad in his NBA prime. So how likely is he to mitigate this wart such that it is no longer debilitating?
His easiest out is simply that his defense is an overstated issue. But all signs point in the direction of it not being so. His steal and block rates are exceptionally weak for a lottery PF prospect. Also his team was not great defensively considering the size and athleticism they boasted, and they were not better with Randle on the floor (or so I have heard and instantly believed. Anybody know where to find UK on/off splits?). And, you can watch for yourself as Randle makes a gigantic pile of mistakes in a single game. He often has no clue what is going on and stands there confused as his assignment waltzes right past him. That lack of mental acuity doesn’t strike me as something that is likely to go away, nor will it be mitigated with marginal improvement. On some plays he was so slow to react that it seems Tennessee could have scored twice before he figured out what was going on. While not every game is as rife with mistakes as this one, similar errors did persist throughout the season and tournament. When the eye test, individual stats, and team level performance all strongly suggest that he is bad at defense, the most Bayesian conclusion is that he is almost certainly bad at defense.
So now that we all agree he is bad defensively, how likely is he to elevate his instincts to a more competent level? His main concern is that he is too slow to discern the offensive play unfolding before his eyes and sometimes fails to react until the ball is going through the net. I believe this deficiency heavily prices into his low steal rate, as players often generate steals by anticipating what will happen in advance. Layne Vashro made an excellent post about evaluating potential, and his statistical analysis on the growth of steal, block, and rebound rates is grim:
These traits are something a player either has or does not have. Do not expect a prospect who cannot block, steal, or board to figure out how once he enters the NBA (not that this never happens of course). Instead, these traits should be viewed as a part of the baseline a player has to work from, much as height and leaping ability are popularly understood.
If we roll with the narrative that steals correlate with defensive awareness and instincts, Randle will almost certainly always have bad instincts. After all, it doesn’t make sense that a player may drastically improve his anticipation and awareness without seeing a bump in steal rate. If increases in steal rate are outlier events, it logically follows that big increases in anticipation and instincts should be as well. This would doom Randle defensively– if defensive instincts are barely more improvable than height or athleticism, then he is a stone cold lock to be a liability as an NBA player.
But to leave some margin for error: let’s be open minded and say that defensive instincts are as easily improved as the most readily improved skill: shooting (at least I assume this is the case, if there is evidence to the contrary I would appreciate hearing about it). Everybody makes a big deal about Marcus Smart’s shooting ability being a damper on his draft stock, but he isn’t even the worst shooter among guards in the draft. He made 30% of his 3’s and 75% of his FT’s in college. Imagine instead that he made 25% of 3’s and 50% of FT’s– would anybody still want to draft him in the lottery? It would likely be perceived as an insurmountable wart that distracts from every good aspect Smart brings to the table. While it is impossible to equate Randle’s defensive badness to shooting percentages, he is the worst defensive player among big man prospects in the draft. Even in the most impossibly optimistic scenario that defensive instincts can improve as much as shooting, Randle’s defense should still be perceived as an exceptionally costly wart. This perception only fails to be widespread because of visibility bias. When casual fans watch a game, they notice every missed or made shot and normally none of the defensive lapses. Further, this enables season by season tracking of shooting percentages that are not available for defensive acumen.
1) Julius Randle’s defense is worse relative to his peers than Marcus Smart’s shooting
2) Shooting is likely more readily improvable than defense, and possibly by a large margin
3) In the instance that neither player drastically improves their wart, Smart has a much rosier upside comparison among a player who shares the wart with similar strengths (Dwyane Wade) than Randle (Luis Scola, David Lee).
All of the concern for Smart’s shot should apply tenfold to Randle’s defense.
As an interesting aside, concern for Randle’s shot should also be great than the concern for Smart’s shot. Floor spacing is quickly being recognizing as valuable. And with analytics becoming increasingly widespread in the NBA, it is worth pondering whether the league is moving in a direction such that players who cannot either hit 3’s or play defense will be coveted at all in the future. Randle’s shot is perceived as a positive as he hit 70.6% of his FT’s, and he has some potential to develop a 3 point shot in spite of only making 3/18 as a freshman. While the bar is lower for acceptable big man shooting, Smart has his defense and PG skills to fall back on and does have superior shooting splits to Randle. If Randle neither steps up his defense in a big way nor becomes a reliable 3 point shooter, it’s difficult to see him ever becoming an impact player in the NBA.
As I mentioned earlier, I could envision Randle becoming David Lee level good. This may sound alright to some people, but to me it is a horrific upside scenario that does not merit 1st round consideration. I do not think David Lee is a particularly useful NBA player because he doesn’t space the floor, and his offensive and rebounding value is consequently outweighed by his poor defense. If Lee is a prospect’s best case scenario, that prospect should be worth little.
There are undeniably a number of positive traits that Randle brings to the table. He is strong, mobile, great at rebounding, and talented at converting difficult shots in the paint. His strength enables him to get to the line where he is solid at making his free throws, and he also has some semblance of handling and passing to work with. Further he appears to be competitive, hard working, and coachable. But because he spectacularly fails at the most high leverage aspect of his performance (defense), this puts a massive damper on his upside. He also has uncertainty regarding the second highest leverage aspect of his value (3 point shooting) that further inhibits his value. These warts are going to be often overlooked because one is not readily visible, and the other is not yet accepted as common NBA wisdom. But they drown out all of the positive qualities he brings to the table simply because none of his good traits are nearly as valuable as defense or spacing.
Hopefully this sheds some clarity on why I remain bearish on Randle in spite of his late season improvement and solid tourney showing. I do believe he carries his fair share of bust risk, but I do not necessarily believe he is a lock bust. The greater concern is that when his successful outcomes still are not that appealing, as he may post good stats as an NBA player without aiding his team too much in the W column. If he ever averages something like 18 points and 10 rebounds with an 18 PER, I’d hope that nobody trolls me over my ranking of him. So long as he keeps missing rotations on defense, I would never regret passing on him in the draft.