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NBA Daily: Julius Randle Has Arrived

Drew Maresca explores Julius Randle’s breakout season, making the case that he’s earned all of the praise that’s coming his way.

Drew Maresca

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Julius Randle is everything for the New York Knicks – for now at least.

Randle entered the NBA in the 2014 draft. Selected seventh overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, the former Kentucky Wildcat was a bowling bowl on the offensive end, viewed as a seriously unique athlete.

But there were question marks, too. Criticisms centered around the potential inability of Randle’s game to translate to the NBA. He was regarded as undersized, lacking the length needed to play amongst big men and the strength required to bully power forwards. Further, while his form was strong, his jump shot was considered inconsistent at best.

Of course, a lot of those criticisms were valid; scouts do their best to balance enthusiasm and caution and, when a prospect doesn’t fit into an existing mold, they err on the side of caution.

But there was a mold for Randle, it’s just that of a unicorn. Charles Barkley. Shawn Kemp. Blake Griffin. Years later, that role had cemented itself, as many compared expected-superstar Zion Williamson to Randle prior to the 2019 NBA Draft. Some of those comparisons were facetious, while others were setting a floor for Williamson. Either way, it speaks to the challenges the industry has faced when projecting the non-prototypical player.

And, if we look back at Randle’s pre-2020-21 career, it’s understandable why fans and media members alike were critical.

Randle had stretches last season – like three consecutive 30-point games in December – where he looked the part. But there were far too many mistakes along the way; ill-conceived spin moves into traffic, just plain bad shots and missed opportunities to find the open man. What’s more, the Knicks ended the season in March at 21-45. So the “above-average player who doesn’t affect winnings” narrative continued to hound him.

The season before last, when Randle was with the New Orleans Pelicans, there was also evidence that he might be better than we all thought. He’d increased his scoring output from 16.4 points per game during the 2017-18 season to 21.4 in 2018-19. But everything else looked the same, more or less. Randle was also hurt by the fact that, in a supporting role alongside Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, the team won just 35 games and failed to make the postseason.

———

The media can be cut-throat in what they demand of young players. And, more often than not, they are correct in their assumptions, at least its more tenured members are; no one has a crystal ball that can predict future growth, most players just don’t grow into stars.

But in Randle’s case, it’s safe to assume we were wrong.

Randle, signed by the Knicks as a 24-year-old, was almost immediately written off as a finished product with nowhere else to go but down. But he was not happy with his pre-2020-21 statistics, with being considered “average” or even slightly above. In fact, it doesn’t seem as though any of it phased him at all. Rather, Randle took each criticism as motivation and approached this past offseason with a renewed focus and dedication.

“A lot of people may have written me off. A lot of people may have had their doubts or whatever in me,” Randle told the media after Monday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks, in which he scored 44 points. “And that was just motivation, that was fuel. For me, it was just coming back a better player and a better teammate than I was last year.”

The results speak for themselves. Randle, a player regarded as out of shape for much of his career, has yet to miss a game for the Knicks and is averaging a career-high 36.7 minutes per game. Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for leaning on his best players, so that latter stat isn’t that surprising, but the fact that Randle has produced so well in such a high usage role speaks to the work he’s put in. For reference, Randle is playing 4.5 more minutes per game this season than he did in his next highest season average (2019-20) – a 13 percent increase.

In the grand scheme of his breakout campaign, however, Randle’s durability and stamina have played but a minor role. He’s averaging a career-high in points (23.1), rebounds (11.0) and assists (5.6) per game, while he’s also shooting a career-best 40.6% on three-point attempts – up from a sub-30% career average – on a career-high 4.4 three-point attempts per game.

As much as Randle has improved as a three-point shooter, he’s also proven more self-aware on the floor. Randle has smartly split his shot selection across the parquet – shooting 21% of his attempts at the rim (a career-low), 20% from 3-10 feet, 19% from 10-16 feet, 14% from 16 feet–the three-point line and 26.7% from beyond the arc. And he’s shooting a career-best percentage, or close to it, from each range. The advanced metrics would also seem to support the idea that Randle is simply a different player this season; currently posting a career-high 20.9 PER, good for 35th in the NBA, Randle has also assisted on a career-best 25.9% of his teammates’ field goals when on the floor.

Still, Randle and the Knicks are 14-16, just barely in the playoff picture. How different is this year’s view of Randle if he’s still unable to lead a winning team?

Winning in the NBA isn’t as simple as some might make it out to be. The best rosters are often loaded with years of experience while, in today’s game, teams are almost required to have multiple stars if they want to compete. The Knicks, even with Randle, are unquestionably too young to compete this season. That said, Randle has dragged them to respectability so far this season, earning their young core plenty of that necessary experience along the way.

Fans often examine rosters in a vacuum — they don’t understand the effect that veterans can have on younger players. But the effect Randle has on his younger teammates is obvious. In fact, following Monday’s game against the Hawks, a number of those teammates, including Immanuel Quickly and RJ Barrett, gushed about Randle’s play, jokingly (or not) insisting on their leader’s inclusion in this season’s All-Star festivities. Their sentiment?

“If this man is not an All-Star, it’s a problem.”

And his coach, not known for overly pumping up anyone, did more of the same.

“Absolutely,” Thibodeau said when asked about Randle’s All-Star candidacy following the game. “It’s not just what he’s done statistically, but the impact on winning, I think. He’s making other people better. He’s played an all-around game, strong on both sides of the ball. He’s played an unselfish game, doing it in a number of different ways, playing multiple positions. He’s doing it all.”

“The most important thing is the impact that he’s having on winning and, hopefully, it’ll be recognized. But I know there’s a great appreciation by his teammates and his coaches, the organization, certainly our fans, for what he’s bringing to our team.”

Randle may or not be named to an All-Star team this season. The starters for the Eastern and Western Conferences were named last night and he was not among them – likely a surprise to no one. But Randle’s turned heads and raised eyebrows with his play this season. And he’s convinced a good chunk of the media, as well as a fan base that has consistently and predictably looked for the next best thing over the last 20 seasons, to trust him to lead New York into the future.

All-Star or not, Julius Randle is a star. And he might just be on his way to convincing the Knicks that it’s time to add another one.

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NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench

Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.

David Yapkowitz

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When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.

On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.

“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”

As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.

This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.

“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.

This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”

Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.

Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.

“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”

Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.

“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”

And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.

He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.

“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”

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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?

Dylan Thayer

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In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)

The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.

Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category.  Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them. 

In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season. 

2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)

As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.

Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.

Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.

3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late. 

In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.

Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation. 

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)

Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.

Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season. 

5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)

Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.

If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)

While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP. 

It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.

While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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