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Julius Randle an absolute steal in free agency for Pelicans plus his fit more alluring than DeMarcus Cousins

New Orleans landed one of the most improved players from last season and his versatility should bolster both the team’s offense and defense.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, Kobe Bryant viewed Julius Randle as Lamar Odom in a Zach Randolph body. While more appropriate comparisons have been made since, it did aptly describe Randle in a nutshell: A bruising beast who possesses enough ball-handling skills, passing savvy and finesse around the rim to be a reliable key cog in a high-paced offensive attack.

Standing 6’9 and weighing close to 250 pounds, Randle is built like a rugged Mack truck and he enjoys utilizing his imposing physical attributes to overwhelm opponents of all sizes inside the paint. Look how easily he overpowered the Denver Nuggets’ Paul Millsap — a player of very similar stature — last March.

Randle was already a strong kid with good mobility when entering the NBA, but last offseason, he took things to another level. Following a 12-week program, he emerged in the best shape of his life — the most shredded abs in the league tell no lies. His weight dropped 20 pounds, from about 260 to 240, and the increases in his athleticism and strength were put on display in every game last season. It’s no wonder why the media voted him to a fifth-place finish for 2018 Most Improved Player Award.

Does anyone remember this sequence in March against the Pelicans?

The barrel-chested power forward averaged the 10th most shot attempts inside the restricted area per game last season. In comparison, Anthony Davis finished 5th, DeAndre Jordan, 12th, and Rudy Gobert, 14th — although Randle would have surpassed everyone on the list of qualifiers but for Clint Capela if minutes were equalized across the board.

Player Per 36 minutes Restricted Area FGAs Restricted Area FG% Per 36 minutes In the Paint (Non-RA) FGAs Non-RA FG% Per 36 minutes In the Paint FGAs In the Paint FG%
Julius Randle 9.6 68.7% 3.4 34.5% 13.0 59.7%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 9.1 71.5% 3.0 38.0% 12.1 63.3%
Anthony Davis 8.0 73.1% 3.9 46.8% 11.8 64.5%
Clint Capela 10.4 69.3% 1.3 42.1% 11.7 66.2%
Andre Drummond 8.6 63.0% 3.0 28.7% 11.6 54.2%
Dwight Howard 8.5 67.5% 2.9 35.7% 11.4 59.5%
LeBron James 8.4 75.2% 1.9 35.0% 10.4 67.7%
Russell Westbrook 8.2 59.2% 2.0 33.3% 10.3 54.1%
DeMarcus Cousins 7.8 61.0% 2.2 40.7% 10.0 56.5%
Tyreke Evans 8.4 53.3% 1.3 30% 9.7 50.1%

An astounding 87% of Randle’s shot attempts came from inside the painted area, and he was as effective as Capela near the rim; however, the best part may be the fact that opponents have known what’s been coming at them for three years yet are unable to slow down the burly menace below the free throw line.

“If he keeps his motor up, nobody can guard him,” said Isaiah Thomas of Randle after his first 13 games with the Lakers last season. “Nobody can guard him.”

Have a look at how Randle’s attempts and efficiency inside the painted area have improved every season.

No one foresaw such advancements and positive results lay in store early on in his career. During the 2015-16 campaign, many questioned Randle’s worth as a player due to numerous struggles. Kevin Pelton and Chad Ford left the 6th pick from the 2014 Draft off their top 10 sophomore lists after he had turned in a disappointing half season. In particular, the ESPN analysts lamented his offensive ineptitude — thanks to a crappy 41.3 FG% inside the arc — and questioned his defensive effort.

Yet, since posting a meager 48.2% True Shooting percentage in his first full season, Randle has gone on to produce a 54.3 TS% and, most recently, a 60.6 TS%. Despite living solely in the paint and getting his shot blocked 104 times last season, Randle’s TS% was beefier than that of Nikola Jokic, DeMarcus Cousins or Joel Embiid — players who have proven the ability to knock down the three-point shot. In fact, only Karl-Anthony Towns, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Anthony Davis finished with a higher TS% while also posting a minimum of 16 points and eight rebounds per game.

The highly potent combination of converting attempts inside the paint at a high rate and frequently getting to the free throw line (7.0 FTA per 36 minutes last season) have overcome an inability to adequately shoot from the perimeter — but it may not stay that way forever.

Defensively, Randle’s versatility gives him an edge over many big men in the league. Remember how often opponents took advantage of Boogie in pick and rolls or dared him to cover spot up shooters last season? Well, according to the Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach, Randle can guard all five spots on the floor when needed because he was legitimately one of the best defenders on the Lakers and Luke Walton often called on that talent in key situations.

Obviously, Walton was trying to inspire Randle in this specific instance, but the Head Coach accoladed his power forward numerous times last season for his improvement on that end of the floor.

“He’s got the ability to guard one through five,” Walton said. “With that, as the league goes smaller, he’s still able to defend skilled, space shooters and he’s able to wrestle with power post-up players. He can use his skill set and his strength on defense if they were trying to use him on smaller players. There’s definitely an advantage to be gained, but a lot of it, what he’s gotten pretty darn good at, is also being able to recognize multiple defensive coverages.”

Randle worked on that at the insistence of his coaches. He watched hours of film and sometimes enlisted his veteran teammates to help him learn what tendencies to expect from certain players.

”As years go on, you learn schemes and how teams play,” Randle said. “Sets start to look familiar. You know what’s coming before it comes.”

As a show of his versatility against guards in the league, look how well Randle was able to stay with Russell Westbrook, perhaps the most explosive all-around dynamo in the game today, on this drive and then block the shot attempt away.

Coming out of the University of Kentucky, many didn’t believe something like this was in the cards. A below average wingspan for his position was supposed to significantly hamper Randle’s presence. However, just as shorter arms didn’t ruin the careers of Blake Griffin or Kevin Love, Randle’s athleticism, speed, strength and talent overcame a wingspan under seven feet. Very good players circumvent noticeable deficiencies.

For kicks, here’s an interesting comparison between two bigs in their age-23 seasons. Remember, one set of these numbers belongs to a six-time All-Star. The other is Randle, who the Lakers renounced to sign Rajon Rondo.

Player Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Turnovers FGA FG% FTA FT%
LaMarcus Aldridge 17.6 7.3 1.9 0.9 0.9 1.5 14.9 48.4% 4.0 78.0%
Julius Randle 21.7 10.7 3.5 0.7 0.7 3.5 14.9 55.8% 7.0 71.8%

Now allow yourself to dream about Randle playing next to a super gravity machine and the best safety in the league. Experts once proclaimed that it would be hard to build around a player with Randle’s skill set: A post-scoring big man who can’t protect the rim. Well, Anthony Davis is going to attract the opponent’s best individual defender of length. AD is going to be there to clean up everyone’s mistakes at the rim. There’s not a better teammate around to cover up the holes in your game or take the pressure off facing the elite of the elite every time down the floor.

Also, let’s not forget about Nikola Mirotic, who is quite versatile in his own right and functions as one of the most lethal 6’10 deep perimeter shooters in the game, and Jrue Holiday’s blossoming all-around game. Plus, if Solomon Hill can return to form defensively and mimic the guy from several years ago and the New Orleans coaching staff can unlock some of that potential that lies within Elfrid Payton...

Prior to the free agency period, Bobby Marks, a noted front office insider for ESPN, believed Randle would command a contract in the neighborhood of $12-14 million a year. The Pelicans signed him for the full-Midlevel exception price of under $8.7 million! Sure, his two-year contract will likely be good for just one year (player option in 2019-2020), but normally the higher tiered players command loftier salaries than their market prices when signing for the short-term. Think J.J. Redick last year or Trevor Ariza’s new deal with the Phoenix Suns. And if next season pans out as hoped, General Manager Dell Demps will be in the driver’s seat to re-up Randle as the organization should be well positioned to bring him back with the likelihood of loads of cap space available.

“He’s that hybrid forward position that five or six years ago, there wasn’t necessarily a place for him in the league,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said before Randle set the tone by bullying the Heat for 21 of his 25 points in the first half of a 131-113 Lakers win on March 1. “And now everybody is trying to find a guy like that.”

A few weeks ago, the New Orleans Pelicans landed a guy that’s been envied by one of the most revered coaches in the league. Although Randle brings a different set of variables than DeMarcus Cousins to the table, they look to be better suited for this roster. And as a fantastic bonus, there won’t be any necessary travails regarding the ongoing rehabilitation of a devastating Achilles injury!

Please be sure to enjoy.

Julius Randle looks like a gem.