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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.

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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.

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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 veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers

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From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the reporter mentioned, “Lakers have a ton of veteran-type players ready and interested to come sign on minimum deals.” Now, this is not necessarily breaking news near the end of July, but this gives fans a reason to believe that Los Angeles is going all in this offseason to win their eighteenth championship next season. Concerning trade rumor speculation, the Trail Blazers, Kings, Wizards, Lakers, and Suns have all been involved and mentioned by NBA analysts across the Internet.

LeBron James is turning 37-years-old this December, and Anthony Davis suffered a few injuries last season, such as a strained calf and groin. Davis is a 9-year NBA veteran, but of course, him and James are not getting any younger. As they continue to age, these players will be placed at a greater risk of sustaining more injuries. The organization will need all the fire power they can acquire this offseason, if they hope to remain at the top of the competition in the Western Conference.

According to another report by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Los Angeles Lakers have “stepped up their efforts” in their pursuit of Kings‘ shooting guard Buddy Hield by including the No. 22 pick to an existent trade deal that would also be comprised of Montrezl Harrell and either Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell has a player option this offseason, and he may even be interested in playing in Sacramento.

Sources say he has strong connections with Kings’ developmental coach Rico Hines. On November 22, 2020, the 27-year-old center/power forward signed as a free agent with the Lakers. The contract he signed was a two-year, $19 million deal. Regarding the trade rumors, Harrell reacted on Twitter tweeting, “Lmaoo this is wild man!”

Last season on the Lakers, Harrell averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 69 games. In 71 games played in the 2020-21 NBA season, Hield averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. The 28-year-old Bahamian also shot 40.6 percent from the field last season. On October 21, 2019, Hield signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension with the Kings. He will earn $22.4 million next season.

This news about Hield comes one week after the story broke concerning Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook’s potential trade to the Lakers. The trade was pertaining to a Westbrook sign-and-trade for Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Suns’ guard Chris Paul was another mentioned player target on the Lakers’ offseason list. In 65 games played last season, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 13-year NBA veteran led the league in turnovers last season (312), but he also has the most career triple-doubles (184) and the highest assist percentage in the league (48.6 percent).

Westbrook is also projected to lead the league in assists and triple-doubles in the upcoming season as well. He finished his performance last season with 38 triple-doubles, the second most in a season in his NBA career. On December 2, 2020, the 32-year-old point guard was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. However, Westbrook is set to earn $44.2 million in the 2021-22 season. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will have to make a big decision on this one.

Additionally, Chris Paul, who finished third in assists per game (8.9) last season, is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season, too. This amount is recognized as Paul’s player option. Either way, the organization might have to overpay for their talent. Referencing Spotrac, the current contracts of Davis and James consume nearly 63 percent of the Lakers’ total salary cap. If Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope get traded, this will clear up $26 million of cap space.

Plus, Harrell’s salary represents almost 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap. With all things considered, the Lakers are much better off working out a trade with the Kings to acquire Hield rather than Paul or Westbrook. Team chemistry is a notable factor in this discussion, and LeBron might not be on board with an isolation-style player, similar to that of Westbrook. Head coach Frank Vogel hinted back in earlier January that randomness was the key to the team’s offensive scheme.

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Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach

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On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Nets organization announced that assistant coach Mike D’Antoni would not be returning to Steve Nash’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 NBA season. Coach D’Antoni is deciding to step down from his position after one season spent with the organization. The reason D’Antoni is deciding to leave the team is unknown. In late June, D’Antoni met with the Portland Trail Blazers for the vacant head-coaching position; he was interviewed twice.

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 70-year-old veteran coach is still seeking to pursue another job as head coach. Coach Nash commented on the story stating, “I will forever be grateful for his guidance and will carry on a lifetime of lessons from the many years we’ve spent together. Our players and staff all benefited from this time in Brooklyn and we wish Mike, Laurel, and their family the very best in what lies ahead.” This news has personally shocked Nash, considering their history together.

In his 16-year NBA head coaching career, D’Antoni’s W-L record is 718-555 (.564). Despite never winning an NBA championship, D’Antoni won the 2005 Coach of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns when Nash was his star point guard, and he won his second award while coaching the Houston Rockets in 2017. The 2004-05 Suns finished 62-20 (.756), ranking first in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. However, the Suns went on to lose four games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The 2017-18 Rockets ended their season 65-17 (.793), ranking first in the Southwest Division and first in the Western Conference Finals. Though, once again, D’Antoni’s team came up short, losing in Game 7 versus the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Coach D’Antoni was also the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2007 and 2018. Moreover, the Nets lost another assistant coach this offseason after the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to become their next head coach. On July 9, 2021, the Nets hired former Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to their coaching staff.

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NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit

Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.

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It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.

Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.

Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.

Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.

Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.

Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.

Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.

As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.

The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.

As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.

The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.

Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.

There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.

Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.

While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.

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