As projected top-five picks Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid all made public last week their decision to skip the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, there were questions about whether fellow star freshman Julius Randle would follow suit, opting to hide any weaknesses in workouts and interviews and allow his game tape do the talking before pre-draft workouts began.
But there Randle was on Thursday, competing inside the Quest Multisport Complex, showing why he’ll have his name called early on June 26 inside the Barclays Center, potentially ahead of the three players who opted out.
“I think it was just good for me to be here. I only get this opportunity once, and this is what I wanted, this is my dream. So I’m taking everything in stride,” he said. “It was good for me to be here, interact with the (NBA) teams and establish that relationship with them. I wanted to be here, so it was no question, even after they decided not to come.”
Thursday was Randle’s first performance in Chicago since November’s Champions Classic, when he torched a Michigan State team for 27 points and 13 rebounds at the United Center. And though his Kentucky Wildcats lost both the game and their No. 1 ranking that night, Randle, the No. 2 player in his class, solidified himself as one of college basketball’s best and an elite NBA prospect.
Randle also saved his best for the national stage late in the season. The Wildcats backed into the SEC Tournament, losing four of seven, and had many questioning whether Kentucky head coach John Calipari could have freshman lightning strike twice after he won the national championship behind first-year stars Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist two years prior.
But the Wildcats hit their stride when tournament time came around — thanks, in part, to Calipari’s now-famous “tweak” — advancing to the SEC Tournament championship game, where they came within a point of knocking off top-ranked Florida. They rode that momentum into March Madness; slotted as a No. 8 seed in the gauntlet of a Midwest region, they knocked off Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan to advance to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
More Aaron Harrison heroics propelled the Wildcats to a berth in the national championship game, where they ultimately fell to a red-hot Connecticut team led by guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Randle averaged 14.8 points on 49-percent shooting and 9.8 rebounds in the tournament, out-producing fellow freshman stars Parker, Wiggins and Embiid; Duke lost to Mercer in the second round, and Kansas bowed out to Stanford in the Round of 32.
It was a trying season for Randle, who admitted getting a taste of everything — hype, expectations, adversity and success — helped him become the player NBA executives and coaches watched perform Thursday.
“Roles were just simplified for everybody, 1 through 5,” he said of the Wildcats’ late success. “We relied on our defense, and things just clicked. They clicked at the right moment, and the game became a lot more fun.”
Randle declared for the draft two weeks after the NCAA tournament and will soon join the lineage of Calipari-led Kentucky freshmen drafted in the first round. In four seasons in Lexington, Calipari has churned out 13 first-round picks, 11 of whom were freshman.
But like all potential draftees, Randle does not come without flaw. His relatively short wingspan (seven feet) for a 6-foot-9 forward has drawn some concern, and his 250-pound frame, while still athletic, has him playing under the rim more than most players at his position. Still, Randle’s potential and production shone through all season (and in Thursday’s workout), and it’s allowed him to not worry about the naysayers as he goes through the process.
“It hasn’t been stressful for me at all, honestly. I’m more excited about what’s to come, it hasn’t really been stressful for me,” he said. “I’m just taking it a day at a time and trying to get better at my craft. I don’t even really think about the draft much, to be honest with you.”
Randle’s jump shot — per Hoop-Math.com, he made just 34 percent of them last year — has also drawn criticism, but he contends his lack of outside jumpers was a product of playing inside almost exclusively. With his wide frame and good body control he was a force inside — he agreed with one reporter’s Zach Randolph comparison — and though he’ll need to show more range at the next level, he’s confident it’s something he can do.
“When you go to Kentucky you sacrifice a lot. Everybody has to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. I sacrificed a lot, and I feel like (outside shooting was) one of the things I sacrificed. So I’ll be able to get back to it at the next level. Heading into college was the best I was ever shooting the ball,” he said. “I think (NBA teams) know I can step out. They’ve seen me do it before in college and high school. I think they want to see me get back to it.”
Weaknesses seem to come to light during the draft process more than they should, but the evidence is also there that Randle’s strengths as a player are as good as anyone’s in this class. He already has met with Minnesota, Utah, Cleveland and Orlando and had seven more teams lined up for Thursday night. That list is sure to grow in the coming weeks, as his muscle inside, ability to play off the dribble, range and added emphasis on the defensive end — something he admitted improved late in his freshman season — has him near the top of every team’s draft board, regardless of pace, style or current roster.
“I’m just a player. I think I can fit multiple styles, adjust to multiple styles because of my skill set. I’ll be able to adapt to whatever it is,” he said. “(I’m) a hard worker, somebody who’s going to give 100 percent all the time. Somebody who’s talented but goes along with the work ethic.”
That work ethic was evident when he made the decision to come to Chicago and compete against fellow draftees, finding another opportunity to showcase his versatile skill set and to prove once again that he’s among the elite prospects in the 2014 draft class.