Jerome Randle laced up for the last time in the gold and blue a month or so ago. And I'm guessing many of us thought that he'd move onto dominate some league, whether it be in Europe, Asia, whereever. But we all had our doubts whether he was (or would ever be) NBA-ready.
And then at the Portsmouth Invitational (the senior camp for potential pros), he dominated Ish Smith, supposedly the fastest college basketball player and an NBA fringe prospect in their tournament matchup (Randle put up 18 points/10 assists/4 steals, Smith 6 points/10 rebounds/8 assists/10 TURNOVERS, most of them caused by Jerome). Then he battled Mikhail Torrance in a duel of the best points at Portsmouth (14 points, 10 assists, 2 steals, 2 turnovers), coming up victorious. He finally succumbed in the title game to the food poisoning he'd suffered a few days earlier, despite teammates urging him not to play--he just didn't want to let them down. He earned Invitational MVP honors for his efforts (for more on his performance, check out LeonPowe's fanshot and click through).
These games forced NBADraft.net and DraftExpress to reevaluate Randle's pro potential, with comments like
His ability to handle the ball and use his quickness to break defenders down makes him an extremely difficult matchup for any defender. People have to play up on him because he is a very dangerous outside shooter, which opens up his driving lanes and creates defensive breakdowns. A very crafty passer, (both in traffic and in transition) he can find teammates on a regular basis and deliver the ball with good precision.
Torrance does it with his size, smarts, and a controlled change of speed and athletic burst of quickness that gets him by smaller guards. Randle does it with blazing quickness and gears that shift faster than a Ferrari, as well as a craftiness necessary for a smaller point guard to operate under and around bigger defenders. Both involve their teammates in a way that makes everyone love to play with them - teammates run harder, cut sharper, and know they will be rewarded by these two premier lead guards.
Sound off in the comments and vote in the poll: Where do you feel Randle's future lies?
For most of this season, I've kept on harping that despite Randle's excellent accomplishments in his great career as a Golden Bear, he wasn't quite NBA caliber. That despite his drive, his accomplishments, his abilities, his evolution, that he still would come up a little bit short, no pun intended. Why? The same reason we think most unconventional players don't make it--they don't fit into the traditional molds of player evaluation.
He's too small to translate to the pro game. He doesn't do the right thing enough on the court. He makes too many curious decisions with the ball. He turns over the ball too much, he can't finish at the rim.
I caught myself going through this line of thought again and had a sudden realization. Wait a minute, where'd I hear all this before?
Oh yeah. Desean.
The parallels between Jackson and Randle aren't all there. Desean was a highly coveted talent a full year before he stepped into Memorial Stadium; Randle best offer came from DePaul before Cal came calling. Desean's impact was instant; Randle's presence only emerged over years of work and sacrifice. Desean's talents seemed natural and instinctive, whereas Randle's abilities seemed to fluctuate depending on opponent and interest.
But at the end, two aspects pigeonhole them in the same box. Both had outstanding careers as Golden Bears that were full of wonderful trademarks (Desean's typhoon-like returns, Jerome's orbital threes). And neither was ever expected to be as fantastic in the pros because of their physical limitations.
Desean proved that the unorthodox works just fine in the pros. Could we see the same with Jerome?
I know I should be castigated for referencing Bill Simmons in support of Randle's case, but he wrote a fairly decent column on evaluating NBA talent on the March Madness level. While I don't agree with everything he put on there, there are a few things I looked at that cast a favorable light on Jerome.
Randle can get to any spot on the floor. Just like in football, where a college quarterback has to be able to throw a certain set of passes to be considered NFL-worthy, if a basketball player can't get anywhere on the floor, then he is eroding his NBA credentials. Patrick Christopher's draft stock really plummeted because of his inability to finish at the rim this season; it's not to say he won't be in the pros one day, but a shooting guard has to be able to get inside consistently to be considered seriously by draft scouts. PC's jump shot just isn't strong enough for him to be relied on offensively.
Randle, by contrast, can get to any point he wants to. He might not be big enough to get his layups in as easy as other point guards (he often had to stretch his body out to its maximal length to finish, or switch to the other side to avoid the help defender), and he still needs to work on his midrange shot (his floater was improving) but he makes up for this with crafty moves and dribble control to put defenders off balance. He has that behind the back move that forces defenders to reach one way before he starts taking off in the opposite direction. His handle, once painfully erratic, is now one of the most controlled in the game. He's pretty good at driving either way. Very tough to find huge deficiencies in his offensive game other than his size.
Take a look at him in the San Francisco Pro-Am League and you can see how almost every defender struggles at staying with him.
Other than his ridiculous crossovers and behind the back movements, watch how steadily he controls the ball. There's a certain steadiness to the way he manages to move without losing his dribble, keeping things moving without losing command of the court. In this more free-flowing style of play that NBA basketball celebrates, Randle could definitely prosper.
He never played with a true big to complement his all-around game. Now, Randle did play with Ryan Anderson his first two years, but Anderson didn't exactly fit with Jerome (and there have been countless reports about how Jerome was ready to leave if Anderson returned), and Ben Braun's lack of coaching really didn't help for developing anyone's individual game. And of course the Bulldog was a completely different player his first two years under Braun--there was no control or rhythm to his game.
But his final two years? The closest thing he got to a post player was Jordan Wilkes, and he was not exactly premium for getting the ball. Markhuri Sanders-Frison is great at the high post, but very erratic down in the box. Max Zhang had barely any back-to-the-basket moves; almost every score he got courtesy of Jerome came off of dribble penetration. In the end the most consistent big man scorer he had was Jamal Boykin, and Boykin didn't exactly have an array of post moves.
Contrast that with John Wall, who could dump it into Demarcus Cousins, or Sherron Collins, who had Cole Aldrich, or even Jon Scheyer, who had that ball of hate we call Zoobekistan. Easy assists, easy points, easy highlights. Randle was always hampered by the lack of finishers; guys he could dump the ball into for a reliable two.
So a lot of Randle's assists resulted from (a) three pointers (a high variance way to log dimes), (b) dribble penetration, and (c) alley-oops. Checking how high Randle's assist totals are in these all-star games, imagine what the Devon Hardins and Leon Powes of the world would've done for him in the halfcourt set Monty enjoyed running. He never got that as a developed point guard. It's not that surprising his assist to turnover ratio would be fairly nondescript--when you're relying on Theo/PC/Boykin jumpers for the bulk of your assists, it's going to be feast or famine with your assist numbers.
In the long run, what was far more critical to me was how crisply Randle moved the ball. He took a back seat to his fellow seniors when the moment required it, especially on the second game of the week. If Theo or Patrick had an open look he made sure he got it to them. If there was nothing open available, he'd do his best to ball-fake his defender or ball reverse. It was the small things that separated him from his point guard peers in the Pac-10, those little decisions that got teammates involved.
Additionally, without a big man, teams were also more willing to zone up, putting big defenders closer to the rim to disrupt Randle's closing shot--Zoubek literally sprung roots in the lane waiting to guard Randle's shots in the Round of 32. Keep in mind EVERY defense we played against this season keyed in on Jerome, and he still got his own. There's a reason Pac-10 coaches made him player of the year over Pondexter.
(I know this has no correlation to anything, but note that the last seven Pac-10 players of the year went onto feature prominently on NBA squads this past decade. The conference was down this year, but do you really think Randle is massively inferior to all the players listed here?)
He's been steadily efficient at getting his points: From that same Simmons article, you see Randle's stats are surprisingly similar to another underrated Pac-10 point guard, Darren Collison (who has thrived on the Hornets with Chris Paul's frequent injuries).
Sophomore year: 48% FG, 81% FT, 45% 3FG
Junior year: 48% FG, 87% FT, 53% 3FG
Senior year: 51% FG, 90% FT, 39% 3FG
Randle (courtesy of Statsheet)
Sophomore year: 42.8% FG, 87% FT, 39.7% 3FG
Junior year: 50.1% FG, 86.3% FT, 46.3% 3FG
Senior year: 45.7% FG, 93.3% FT, 40.4% 3FG
Although their games are as different as Spock and McCoy, the production is about the same on both ends. Both of their senior year stats dipped, but in both cases you can attribute that to a huge downgrade in personnel. Collison went from Love, Westbrook and Mbah a Moute to Jrue Holiday and Ivan Drago; Randle was definitely overworked this past season with Kamp out, Robertson and Gutierrez getting injured, and Smith proving to be inefficient as his backup. Defenses keyed to stop these two every night. It was inevitable that their numbers dropped their final seasons.
Thus his senior dip is fairly explainable. Venoy Overton did shut Randle down in Seattle and held him in check in the tournament final, and Seth Tarver bothered him in all four of their meetings. Although they probably do indicate how pressure defense can disrupt Jerome, it's not like he's going to be asked to handle starting duties and minutes (and how many pro teams actually pressure the ball on a regular basis? Maybe a little more during playoff time). As a contributor off the bench with 15-20 minutes, you get the best of his abilities night-in, night-out.
(Remember Randle played the third most minutes in the Pac-10 this year, behind only Michael Roll and Fields. And this is coming off a similar season in 2009 where he handled most of the point guard minutes and wore out near the end of the season. That he held up until the Round of 32 is a mini-miracle of its own.)
It's worth noting Randle has had some of his best games against halfcourt man-to-man defenses, where he can set up and run the offense. And most pro defenses will be willing to give him that leverage to operate.
The NBA is becoming more and more a point guard's league: Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko fame writes that the present belongs to the teams anchored by great point guard play (as opposed to the shooting guard/forward glut that polluted the late 90s/early 00s).
Now, let's glance at the present: We have an embarrassment of point guard riches. The paradox: They are no longer a rare commodity at the exact moment at which they have become most prized.
To stress this again, even if it bores the 'brows right off of you: The Class of 2009 boasts totally excellent PGs Brandon Jennings, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, and putatively, Ricky Rubio. Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Rodrigue Beaubois, Jonny Flynn, cannot be hailed as "pure", but their scorers' fervor by no means hampers their playmaking ability. This is the combo guard brought back from the brink. And we've yet to really see with Jrue Holiday or Eric Maynor can do, but signs are encouraging.
And already, across the league, there was Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Devin Harris, and Andre Miller.
If you're out of breath just from reading that, or skipped much, I think I've done my job. Oh, and standing atop this year's mock drafts despite his shameful loss in some amateur shin-dig over the weekend, John Wall is the grand prize in this upcoming lottery. Don't believe the backlash: Wall is a transformative force and then some, as you saw any time that Kentucky bothered to push the tempo and let their freshman guard work with the slightest bit of space. So fine, he was smothered and died, and given the quality of his teammates, that means he's vulnerable in the pros. Maybe sound logic if everyone/anyone else had pulled their weight. Downgrade John Wall at your own peril.
Guards that can make plays with their scoring without it being detrimental to winning basketball. You don't have to be John Stockton or Gary Payton anymore to make your presence felt at point. Unlike baseball (which has barely changed), or football (which has evolved only gradually although the basic fundamentals of the game remain the same) basketball frameworks change and redevelop on a regular basis, and the current skillset needed at the point favors Randle's style of play. While Randle is nowhere near the phenom status of a Wall, can't you see him emerging into the smaller bench version of Aaron Brooks, your second and fourth quarter general making sure the ball goes where it belongs?
And of course he will be a defensive liability on the court, but it's not like there's hundreds of point guards who play great D either--point guards are like quarterbacks; they direct the offense but their defensive impact is minimal. Look at the Lakers, who are about two years running on inferior point guards, and think what a better offensive version of Jordan Farmar or Shannon Brown with similar defensive liabilities could do for their squad. How many of our Cal Laker fans would trade away those two for Randle running backup point 15-20 minutes a night in this year's playoffs?
And let's not forget Randle's alpha dog status on the hardwood.
Competitive pulse: This is critical in the pros. And although Christopher and Robertson probably have the NBA chops and skills that fit inside the framework of "ball player", only Randle seems to have that psychological edge to outwork and beat his foes.
"I don't know why people make such a big deal out of height," Randle said. "I'm playing against guys who are 6-5 and up and I'm still able to do things that I want to do. That's life. I'm all about proving people wrong, and that's Jerome Randle. Jerome Randle is about proving people wrong. I love it. It really motivates me to prove everyone wrong that doubts me, that don't think I can play at this level or the next level."
That's alpha dog talk right there. You play against guys like that in the playground, you pray to God your ankles don't require surgery the following morning. Randle has evolved his play year-after-year. What's to say he can't do it again to make the final leap?
Jerome Randle ended his career a winner at Cal. I know I doubted him at first, but I'm not betting against him to stop winning whereever he goes. Like he said, Jerome Randle is all about proving people wrong.