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Julius Randle is playing like a third star for the New Orleans Pelicans

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He’s been putting up eye-popping numbers since being inserted into the starting lineup. Is it sustainable?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

On November 19th, the New Orleans Pelicans were engaged in an important matchup against the then 8-7 San Antonio Spurs. After watching Anthony Davis take an elbow to the head, Alvin Gentry faced a crucial decision. Davis was but four points short of scoring 10,000 for his career...in front of the Smoothie King Center crowd...at the tail end of a three-game home stand. The head coach had to weigh sitting Anthony Davis and trusting the bench to hold the tenuous lead, or risk adding to Anthony Davis’ 2018-19 total of four games missed.

Julius Randle made the decision an easy one.

Randle went on to finish that game with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and ten assists, and his triple-double would all but overshadow AD’s 29 points and nine rebounds. With his rare combination of power and instinct, Randle piloted the second unit by hitting cutters through the lane and shooters on the perimeter all the while carving double teams with aplomb.

And he had a bit of fun while doing it.

“Ask him why he subbed me out the game?!” — Anthony Davis told Jen Hale in a fit of joking rage after Randle’s deliberate shine-stealing performance.

Seconds later: “He wanted to be ‘Defensive Player of the Year’ or something. He took a shot to the face, and that’s his fault. I can only do what coach tells me to do.” — Julius Randle

Since that happy moment, Nikola Mirotic has dealt with a stomach flu and continued to suffer the effects from a sprained ankle. Consequently, the Pelicans have entrusted even more of the workload to Julius Randle and he has responded accordingly.

Randle is one of the top-20 players in efficiency (58 FG%, up from his career average of 51%), in addition to his career-best numbers in three-point shooting (32%) on his highest volume (1.8), points (19.3), free throws (6.3), and blocks (0.6). And Julius is enjoying his best season to date in under 28 minutes per game.

Per 36 minutes, Julius Randle is averaging 25.2 points and 12.4 rebounds, joining the following illustrious company of regulars:

  • Giannis Antetokoumnpo
  • Joel Embiid

That’s the list.

The Pelicans have also recently lost their most durable man over the past two seasons, E’Twaun Moore, due to a lower leg strain, adding to the growing list of sidelined bodies. Alongside Mirotic and Elfrid Payton, Moore is now the third opening week starter in need of recuperation time after the Pelicans now oft forgotten 4-0 surge to begin the 2018-19 season.

With even more onus placed upon his shoulders, Randle has responded yet again. Over the last six games, he is averaging 26.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists to go along with a 59 FG% and a 43 3PT%.

**Randle has posted these impressive numbers while battle plantar fasciitis which has hampered him since training camp.

Julius is a playmaking bowling ball with remarkable efficiency who can get his shot off at will — and do it with remarkable continuity. He marries his power with the dexterity to finish with either hand, or use his bevy of weapons including a soft fadeaway or hook shot to make his underneath game nearly unstoppable.

General Manager Dell Demps and the Pelicans front office have been desperate to place a winning core around Anthony Davis. With the decision on his supermax looming, Demps’ timetable has nearly reached its end.

Has he done enough to earn the benefit of the doubt from Anthony Davis?

True, Demps has had his share of mistakes, most notably handing Omer Asik a five-year $58 million dollar deal, Alexis Ajinca a four-year $20 million contract, and Solomon Hill a four-year $48 million dollar agreement.

But he has certainly hit on Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle. Elfrid Payton looks like a smart signing, and last year’ addition of Rajon Rondo was a shrewd move despite intense public scrutiny as it unveiled a successful identity.

Holiday is shutting down opposing playmakers left and right, and comfortably out-dueling them on the offensive end. When AD exited early against Detroit due to a hip bruise suffered defending Blake Griffin last week, it was Jrue leading the charge with 37 points, five rebounds, five assists, and five three-pointers — all while limiting 15.3 PPG-scorer Reggie Jackson to two points.

Holiday’s scoring prowess of 20.5 points and playmaking 8.9 assists per game are only matched by former MVP Russell Westbrook, who is a net-negative defensively.

In fact, Holiday’s +20.2 per 100 possessions even leads teammate Anthony Davis’ +19.5.

And amid these two Pelicans stars, Randle is playing like an All-Star in the over-crowded Western Conference. At 24 years of age, and in just his fifth season, Randle trails only Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis, and Blake Griffin in scoring among power forwards, and with the exception of Giannis (24), he’s at least five years younger than the rest of the group.

The New Orleans Pelicans three-man lineup consisting of Holiday-Randle-Davis is +17.1 per 100 possessions in 388 minutes.

For context, check out these vaunted Golden State Warrior three-man lineups:

  • Curry-Thompson-Durant is +4 in 413 minutes.
  • Durant-Thompson-Green is +10.8 in 324 minutes

Only the Raptors, Thunder and Celtics have stronger producing three-man lineups to date.

When examining five-man groups, these two units featuring Holiday, Randle and AD finish sixth and seventh across the entire NBA, respectively:

  • Holiday - Moore - Miller - Randle - Davis (+37.7 net)
  • Holiday - Moore - Mirotic - Randle - Davis (+35.7 net)

The Pelicans have hit the jackpot with Julius Randle and given Anthony Davis a frontcourt partner he can pair alongside for the life of his career should New Orleans front office find a way of making it work.

One last important thing to note if you’re wondering about their short-lived relationship:

“It’s amazing. All of these guys are my brothers. We’re all extremely close. We do a lot of things outside the court together.” — Randle tells Jen Hale below

For more on the Pelicans, be sure to check out our most recent podcast, “The Bird Calls,” featuring Oleh Kosel, David Grubb and Kevin Barrios.