The coaches and players at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, had heard about Julius Randle’s gifts before Randle ever practiced with the team.
Randle lived up to the hype almost immediately.
In early December 2009, during the McDonald’s Fall Classic tournament in El Paso, Randle caught a pass on the block, drop-stepped and dunked over a pair of 6-foot-9 defenders.
“There was no doubt in our minds from the beginning that he was going to be an elite player,” says Chris Lovell, who was Prestonwood’s assistant coach. “He’s a combination of skill and athleticism that’s very, very uncommon for his size, with the ball-handling and the quick step and the body to go with it and the offensive rebounding.”
Randle continues to impress — so much so that he’s vying with Indiana’s Noah Vonleh and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon to become the first power forward taken in the 2014 NBA Draft. Vonleh has the best long-range shot and the best shot-blocking potential of the trio. Gordon is the best defender in the group. But Randle is the best scorer.
“We’re all athletic, fast,” Randle says. “Me being able shoot the ball, handle the ball really well, me having the intangibles to guard on the defensive end — even though I’m still getting a lot better at that — I just think my versatility separates me from a lot of people.”
At 6-foot-9 in sneakers and 250 pounds, Randle is a bruiser who has drawn comparisons to another burly power forward, the Memphis Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph.
Randle averaged 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game during his lone season at Kentucky, even though he regularly faced double-teams.
Randle faced enormous expectations as he began his freshman season at Kentucky. Along with Andrew Wiggins at Kansas and Jabari Parker at Duke, he was billed as a future NBA All-Star.
Kentucky began the season as the country’s top-ranked team, but its gaggle of heralded freshmen struggled to live up to the hype. The Wildcats carried a disappointing 24-10 record into the NCAA Tournament and faced heightened scrutiny for their on-court play.
Randle thinks the criticism leveled at the team will make him a better pro.
“I think it’ll help me just because I’ve been through a situation this year where we lost more than expected,” he says. “You may be going into a season next year (in the NBA) where you’re not expected to win many games. So it’s kind of the flip side.
“You’ve just got to take every game in stride and play every game like it’s your last. You don’t go into a game expecting to lose. When things aren’t going your way, you’ve got to attack it.”
Randle and his Kentucky teammates eventually proved their doubters wrong.
They won five consecutive NCAA Tournament games and reached the championship game, where they lost to UConn.
Randle helped lead the way.
“I think the greatest thing I saw Julius do this year was that he became increasingly more unselfish as the year went on,” says Lovell, who is now Prestonwood’s head coach. “I think he also learned how to play the entire time he was on the court. In high school, he could take breaks.”
Randle’s supposed deficiencies on defense have hurt his draft stock.
Last week, Yahoo! Sports reported that some NBA teams are concerned that Randle will need surgery on his right foot after the draft.
Randle and his mom have said the report is false.
It’s improbable that Randle will still be available when the Magic make their second pick of the first round, at 12th overall.
“I think I can fit in multiple styles and adjust to multiple styles just because of my skill set,” Randle says. “I think I’ll just be able to adapt to wherever it is.”