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P&T film review: Julius Randle’s defense

How did the Knicks’ prized free agent do on D last year?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s chat about Julius Randle’s defense.

First, his strengths.

When Randle is engaged on the defensive end, he can string together good — if not great — sequences. On the ball, his strength makes him difficult to move, and his quick feet and speedy hip turns give him the ability to stay in front of smaller players. For example, in this following play from the 2017-18 season, he got stuck guarding Steph Curry on a switch late in a close game. Throughout the possession, Randle stays low, moves his feet, and uses his hands to make Curry’s dribble uncomfortable. But perhaps most impressive is the speed with which he turns his hips. For a 250-60-pound man, that hip turn is like lighting!

In this next clip, Randle gets switched onto the speedy De’Aaron Fox. At the start of the possession, he shows excellent awareness, giving Fox a healthy cushion and forcing him to his weaker hand and away from the basket. Once Fox makes his move, Randle effortlessly slides in front of him and forces him to take a midrange jumper. Again, for a man of Randle’s size, this is really impressive stuff.

Of course, even the best defensive big men frequently lose matchups against players like Steph Curry and Kemba Walker, and Julius Randle is no exception.

But, on the whole, he’s a good defender in space. His biggest weakness on the ball is finishing plays. While he often does an excellent job staying in front of his man, he has a bad tendency of not contesting shots. Here’s an example:

This starts out as a really excellent defensive possession for Randle. He bumps the roll man, recovers out to his man — LeBron — on-balance and cuts off his drive to the rim. But he ends the possession by allowing LeBron to shoot a completely uncontested fadeaway. LeBron didn’t get his body into him and didn’t get him off balance — he just turned around and put up a shot. Kinda strange! But it’s a common refrain with Randle.

While Randle is a pretty good on-ball defender, it’s a completely different story off the ball. Great off-ball defenders typically excel in the following facets: defensive positioning, court awareness/anticipation, posture and help activity. Last season, Randle was bad at pretty much all of those things.

That’s not to say he didn’t show flashes of good off-ball defense. In the video directly above, he does an exemplary job. Since he’s on the weak side of the PnR, his job (in that scheme), was to help down and put a body on the roll man, ensuring that the roll man doesn’t get an open layup while his primary defender recovers (this is sometimes called “bumping the roll man”). Once the roll man’s defender has recovered, the bumper’s job is to recover out to his primary assignment, exactly like Randle does.

But far more frequently, Randle fails to fulfill his duty:

In that last example, you can see him think about bumping, but he decides instead to close out on Dewayne Dedmon. While Dedmon did shoot 38 percent from three last year, this is definitively the wrong decision. Shooting 38 percent from three is worth 1.14 points per possession, an excellent number. But uncontested Alex Len dunks are worth a heck of a lot more than that.

Of course, there are other fingers to point in those examples (hi there, Mr. Okafor!), but that doesn’t excuse Randle from doing his part.

His strong-side PnR defense isn’t any better. Typically, the strong-side PnR defender’s job is to 80-20. To “80-20” is to show help to the ball handler (20 percent) by moving your feet/digging/etc., but ultimately staying home on your primary assignment. These percentages are ball-park estimates for how much you should show help against an ordinary shooter, but they can vary quite a bit. So, for example, if DeAndre Jordan is standing in the corner, you should completely commit to helping on the drive. But if Steph Curry is in the corner, you probably shouldn’t help at all.

Last season Randle, more often than not, stood still and just watched whatever happened.

That lack of interest and effort in these clips is annoying, but that last clip is especially frustrating. He gets caught ball-watching (that discussion is coming up), and doesn’t notice the cutter. Because of how close the cutter is to his man, he could have easily helped off without leaving his man open. And the SMALLEST slide would have prevented an easy layup.

What about when Randle is the guarding the screener in PnR/PnP? Typically Randle likes to switch these actions, and for good reason. As you saw above, he’s fine guarding quicker players in space, but his positioning, awareness, and footwork are often lacking in other coverages.

In this next play, the Pelicans play a standard drop-and-trail coverage. The idea is for the on-ball defender to trail his man around the screen and — by staying connected to his hip — prevent a 3-point shot. The screener’s defender typically starts by positioning themselves somewhere around the free-throw line. Their job is to backpedal towards the hoop, keeping both the ball handler AND the roll man in front of them, until the trail defender has time to recover. It’s easier said than done. The ultimate goal of this defense is to force a low efficiency midrange jumper or a floater. Here’s the play:

Ultimately, this play ends with a floater, so... pretty good result! But this is far from perfect defense. First, Randle drops too quickly. He’s deep in the paint before Dedmon, and this gives Trae Young an enormous amount of space to walk into the floater. He also doesn’t use his hands. Good PnR defenders have active hands — typically you should show the ball handler one, and keep the other one either on the chest of the roll man or in the passing lane to prevent the pocket pass — and good PnR defenders get big and shrink the paint. Finally, he’s slightly off balance when backpedaling, and not prepared to explode up to contest a shot if need be.

To get an idea of what this sort of defense should look like, take a look at this clip from Ben Pfeifer’s awesome new piece on Derrick Favors:

That’s art right there, and it’s a far cry from the sort of technical proficiency you’ll get from Randle on a nightly basis. But hopefully he’ll at least figure out how to put his hands up and contest shots.

Randle has shown the ability to improve in-game. One of his better defensive games last season came against the Philadelphia 76ers. Early in the game, he got burned by JJ Redick. Against shooters as good as JJ, you can’t play standard drop coverage. Instead, the big has to get up to the level of the screen to prevent an easy jumper. Randle learned that the hard way:

The 76ers LOVE this simple double handoff/PnR action with Redick/Simmons because of the way it helped space out their otherwise cramped floor, and they went back to it repeatedly during this game. But Randle learned. Just a couple plays later, watch him sniff out the action and quickly get to the level of the screen:

While we’re chatting about getting to the level of the screen (and positive things!), let me show you my favorite defensive possession by Randle last season.

This is just glorious. He starts by noticing his teammate is mismatched against a big defender, and drops down away from DeAndre Jordan — who is a non-threat that far from the basket — to prevent the entry pass. After successfully stymieing that, he notices the Mavericks try to use his deep positioning to create an open three off a screen for Luka Dončić. He sniffs this action out before it even begins, and by the time Dončić comes around the screen, Randle is at the level AND on-balance enough to turn and sprint back to help on the roll man if need be. This is top-notch stuff.

I’m about to show you a string of really bad, really depressing plays — plays that show Randle’s lack of defensive awareness, effort, and positioning. But whenever you need a palate cleanser, go back and watch that play. It gives me hope. That sort of high-level help D is rare, and it makes me hopeful that some of Randle’s struggles might be related to (hopefully) more fixable stuff like effort and focus, which was perhaps accentuated by being in New Orleans during a really weird year.

Alright, let me start by painting a picture. In this next play, Randle is exhausted after a long one minute and 15 seconds of game action. As a result, he’s got his hands on his knees, he’s sucking air, and loses track of his man... wait, I said one minute and 15 seconds, right?? Oh boy.

Randle loses focus way too frequently on the defensive side of the ball, and he gave up good shots as a result quite often last season.

One way his lack of focus manifested itself is in ball-watching:

Sometimes it’s almost comical. Here his man, Trae Young, is spotting up from three at the top of the key, and he’s still standing in the corner watching Dedmon go to work in the post.

Even now, months later, Randle may still be in Smoothie King Center watching Dedmon perform awkward pivots and up-fakes.

During this next play, his ball-watching tendency results in him being poorly positioned.

As soon as Anthony Davis helps down, Randle ought to position himself smack dab in the middle of Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe so that he can close out on either one of them if a pass comes. But Randle is stuck watching the ball and doesn’t realize what’s going on around him. As a result, the Pels gave up an open three to a deadly shooter.

Need a break from this rough film? Take a breather and go rewatch that palate cleanser above.

Back with me? So, while Randle is impressively proactive in the play you just re-watched —sniffing out actions before they even begin — he’s typically a reactive defender. And, in the NBA, that costs you.

Here Randle recognizes that he needs to offer weak-side rim protection, but he waits until Jonah Bolden has the ball in the paint to rotate over:

Again he sees that he needs to help, but he reacts too late to make a difference:

In this next play, he fails to react at all:

There’s a lot that goes wrong here, and this open three is squarely on Randle’s shoulders:

Finally, Randle sometimes is just slow to get back on D:

You’ll notice that when I paused that clip, Randle was in front of or in line with every single opponent. And again below:

So what’s to be done? It’s hard to deny that Randle was a poor defender last year. His help defense was often poor (at best!), he offered almost no rim protection as a big, and he often didn’t put the necessary effort in. And the NBA stats website paints him as a below-average defender on a number of important play types too. Last year he gave up .92 PPP against PnR ball handlers (37th percentile), he gave up a whopping 1.14 PPP against PnR Roll men (28th percentile), and against spot ups — which require you to see your man and the ball, close out on balance, and have high active hands — he surrendered 1 PPP (12.9th percentile).

But there is hope!

For starters, Randle is a very good offensive player (I’ll hopefully have a film review of his work on that side of the ball up before the season starts), and on that end of the ball he makes up a lot of what he gives up on the other end.

Last year was also a really strange year in New Orleans. It’s probably not easy to be hyped up to play a relatively meaningless 1st quarter against the Detroit Pistons in mid-March in front of small crowd that’s annoyed that your team’s star player who has asked for a trade. Those unusual circumstances are at least a little bit mitigating. Then again, Randle may well have to play a number of meaningless games for the Knicks this year.

Rotation-wise, Randle is absolutely best when paired up with a strong point of attack defender. When he played with Jrue Holiday in New Orleans (986 minutes) the Pels had a net rating of +4.6. When he played without Jrue (816 minutes) the Pels were -8.7. The same thing happened in Los Angeles — when he played with Lonzo Ball (872 minutes) they put up a +2.5 net rating, without Lonzo (1318 minutes) -3.68. Both Jrue and Lonzo are long, strong defenders who do more than their share in PnR defense, and are also top-notch off-ball guys. Those qualities help cover Randle’s deficiencies on the defensive end.

Scheme-wise, Randle is probably best hidden in a switch-heavy scheme. That will prevent him from getting stuck in difficult PnR situations, and remove some of the off-ball help assignments he struggles with. There will likely still be struggles, but it’ll be a start.

If I’m right about this stuff, there are interesting questions about his fit with our rising defensive star Mitchell Robinson and about who you should play at point guard with him. While Mitch has the quick feet and length to handle a switching scheme, it’s preferable to have him in a scheme that has him defending more — not less — shots at the rim. On the other end of the ball, both Randle and Mitch are top-tier rim runners, but rim runners do best in situations with maximal floor spacing. Are teams going to be able to just build a wall in the paint against the Knicks if you have both on the court (perhaps with a poor-shooting point guard like Payton, DSJ, or Ntilikina)? And, speaking of that, who is the best point guard to play with him?

I’m not sure how to answer to those questions, but I’ll leave them for you to chat about in the comment section.