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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: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford

Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.

Dylan Thayer

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As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt. 

Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School. 

Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.

During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie. 

“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”

If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. 

Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.

As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause. 

This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.

The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors. 

As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core. 

Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford. 

Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to. 

Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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NBA Daily: Where Does John Collins Really Fit?

Since the Atlanta Hawks and John Collins were unable to agree to an extension in the offseason, rumors have swirled about the 23-year old big and his future. Ariel Pacheco breaks down which teams might be the best fit for Collins should he and Atlanta decide to part ways.

Ariel Pacheco

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John Collins has been the subject of trade rumors all season long. The Atlanta Hawks are reportedly seeking a “lottery level pick” in return for the talented big man. With Collins set to be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason, any team that trades for him must also be willing to either offer an extension that will likely be north of $100 million or lose him for nothing.

This cuts down the list of potential suitors to just a handful of teams. These teams will have to be willing to part with draft capital and/or young players. Here’s a look at where John Collins could fit in. 

San Antonio Spurs

Few teams are as good of a fit for Collins as San Antonio. The Spurs are off to a surprising start at 16-11 and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. That said, they are in desperate need of a floor-spacing big with some upside and Collins is just that. With the 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge set to be a free agent and his play dropping off, Collins can slide right in as the team’s big of the future.

The Spurs have multiple young guys and their draft picks. The question is how much would they be willing to part with. There are a couple of iterations that the Spurs could send out to Atlanta. A trade centered around Derrick White and a protected pick could be something that interests the Hawks. They might also be interested in a deal that includes Lonnie Walker, salary filler and a protected pick. Again, it depends on how far San Antonio would be interested in going in their pursuit of Collins.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have quietly been a competitive team this season, possibly more so than they want to be. With a young star they certainly want to build around in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collins would represent an intriguing co-star to lead the franchise into the future. At the very least, the fit between the two would be beautiful to watch. Oklahoma City has a number of young, high-upside players they like in Lugentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon. Adding in Collins to compliment them would significantly accelerate their rebuild.

The Thunder also happen to have a war chest stuffed with draft capital. They have 16 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks through the 2027 draft. It’ll be impossible for them to select a player with every one of those picks and, while they are unlikely to just offer them recklessly, using some of that capital to swing a trade for a young talent with All-Star potential in John Collins would be a great use of resources. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, Cleveland just added Jarrett Allen. But that shouldn’t preclude them from a potential move for Collins.

The Cavaliers have struggled after a nice start to the season. While they seem to have settled on a core centered around Allen, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, they are in need of a frontcourt scorer who can space the floor for their guards. Collins might prove the perfect fit, as he can play alongside Allen and should prove a threat with both Sextan and Garland in the pick-and-roll. And, given his upside, the Cavaliers’ future would shine even brighter.

The difficulty here is finding a deal that works for both sides. If a deal were to happen it would more than likely have to be a three-team deal. The Cavaliers just aren’t a natural trading partner with the Hawks. A third team would be able to give both sides what they are looking for. Cleveland could also bet on Collins not signing an extension with a new team; in that event, they would be better off waiting until free-agency to offer him a deal. 

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento struck gold in this past year’s draft with Tyrese Haliburton. Alongside De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have their backcourt of the future firmly in place. Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield have both been rumored to be unhappy in Sacramento, involving one or both of them in a trade for Collins could give the Kings a lot more upside and add some frontcourt scoring. 

This is another situation where, given their personnel, the Kings and Hawks aren’t ideal trade partners and would probably need to involve a third team. Sacramento has shown some growth this season and an upgrade in talent could help make their playoff aspirations more attainable. The Kings own all of their first-rounders and should look to be aggressive in improving their roster.

Boston Celtics

Pursuing a Collins deal is unlikely for Boston, who has shown to be very reluctant in parting with future assets in recent seasons. Still, Collins would add a pick-and-roll threat Boston just doesn’t have. The Celtics would then be able to build around an extremely strong core of Collins, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Celtics would have to pay Collins in the offseason, however, making them even more unlikely to swing a deal for Collins. Already paying Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown over $100 million each, Boston would almost certainly have to and the same to Collins, further restricting their ability to fill out a roster that, beyond those three, has been lacking this season. On paper they are a great fit, but there are just too many extenuating factors that make a deal unlikely.

Plenty of other teams could (and should) put their hat in the Collins-ring but are also unlikely to do so due to various factors. The Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets could all swing a deal for the big man, but they either have younger guys at his position or wouldn’t be willing to pay him.

Collins is a talented 23-year-old big man with All-Star potential. It’s not often someone of his caliber at such a young age is available on the trade market and teams should be aggressive in their pursuit. If Collins doesn’t get traded, teams will have a chance to sign him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. He will likely command a $100 million deal, with any team that trades for him essentially ponying up for the first shot to pay him. 

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