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At Kentucky’s preseason media day on Oct. 15, John Calipari was asked about Julius Randle. That makes sense, because everybody wanted to know about him, and Calipari had already seen him practice a little bit, and he was the person to ask.
It was a vague question about leadership and playing hard and what combination of those add up to being a leader. It was abstract, but Calipari heard the words “Julius” and “Randle,” and he already had his Randle talking points lined up. This is how he conducts news conferences. His answer on Randle, in full:
Well, what’s happening right now, we’re playing him in a position as though he’s a two or a three. So he’s just now getting comfortable being—starting from 20 feet out.
You still have to offensive rebound, which he is not. He’s not defensive rebounding the way he needs to. He is driving the ball better and recognizing better, trying to figure out when do I shoot jumpers, when do I drive?
Yet that being said, he’s still playing hard. Yesterday, the thing, we had an unbelievable practice until 15 minutes to go, and then they all backed up, and it starts with one or two guys. We didn’t finish the practice.
But he is—you know, he’s 6-9, 250, and he’s—you know, he’s skilled. But I don’t want to play him under the basket. That’s not preparing him for what’s ahead for him. I could play him at seven feet and try to win college games, tell him, I’m really helping you, or I can make him play out on the floor like we did Patrick Patterson. Do you remember Patrick went from standing under the basket to playing at the top of the key offensively? So it’s going to take him time.
That’s probably why people walked in and looked at James Young. It’s more natural for him. He’s playing like he naturally would, and the other guys are still learning and try to get their feel, their feet underneath them about how they’re going to play this new way of playing.
Calipari volunteered that he didn’t want to simply station Randle under the basket, and that he would stretch his game to make him a more appealing pro prospect. He volunteered an example, and one that has worked out quite well: Patterson.
But reflecting on Randle’s first 13 games as a college player, 13 games into the season which the above quote previewed, how has he done in stretching his game? Jonathan Tjarks at SB Nation recently wrote that Randle’s comparison to NBA power forwards is not favorable because of his relatively short wingspan. That notion would seem to further confirm that Calipari is right, that diversifying Randle’s game and stretching it out is in his best interest when the time comes for NBA front offices to consider him for drafting.
So how diverse has Randle’s game been so far this season? In short: not very. Using gametracker data, a shot chart of Randle’s 75 makes from the field in 132 attempts was created. Of those 75 makes, 59 were classified as being shot at the rim—either dunks, layups or tip-ins. On shots away from the rim, he was 16-of-59 (including 0-for-6 from 3-point range).
The shot chart (click to enlarge):
Randle’s diversification has obviously not hurt his offensive output; he’s made his living at the basket, making shots at the rim and shooting a solid 72 percent from the free-throw line on 118 attempts, ninth-most in Division I.
But Calipari’s preseason promise seems to have turned into a mid-season compromise, and who could blame him? Randle is not only Kentucky’s best inside scoring option, he’s its only inside scoring option considering that Willie Cauley-Stein has not generated much of his own offense in the post. According to hoop-math.com (subscription required), 50 of his 76 field-goal attempts have been at the rim. Of his 40 makes at the rim, 23 have earned assists for another player (Cauley-Stein is shooting 8-of-26 on 2-point shots not classified as dunks, layups or tip-ins).
Randle’s dominance in the post combined with a host of other factors—creating offense in high-percentage spots on the floor, Kentucky’s personnel and how opponents play the Wildcats on defense, among any number of other factors—seems to have dictated how Randle has played on offense through the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule. Whether anything changes moving forward, only those in practice know. The Wildcats will have had 10 uninterrupted days of practice between games by the time they tip off Wednesday at home against Mississippi State, and if any major tweaks to Kentucky’s offensive approach are to happen this season, they will likely emerge then. Through 13 games, Randle has been dominant and appeared at times to be unstoppable, but his dominance has come despite variety with the ball rather than because of it.