Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Julius Randle and Terrence Jones

While Randle has gotten more publicity in the last year than Jones has in his entire career, these two have more in common than their reputations would suggest. They are both left-handed 6'9 250+ power forwards from Kentucky, both were five-star McDonald's All-American recruits coming out of high school and both were key players on Final Four teams in Lexington.

A lot of the difference in how they are perceived comes down to timing. If Jones had declared for the NBA draft after his freshman year in school (2011), he would have been a Top 5-7 pick in a draft that was not particularly top heavy, with Tristan Thompson going No. 4. Instead, he returned for his sophomore year of college, where he won a national title with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist but saw his per-game stats drop across the board.

As a result, he slipped to the No. 17 pick in 2012, one of the deeper drafts in recent memory. He came to a Houston team that featured 4 PF's - Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Royce White and Thomas Robinson - who were drafted ahead of him. It took him most of his first season in the league to carve out a spot in the rotation and he didn't become a starter until his second, where he was the 4th-5th option behind James Harden, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons.

Randle, in contrast, struck while the iron was hot, going pro after his freshman season and going to the LA Lakers at No. 7. As a rookie, he will walk into a situation where he can eat up as many minutes and possessions as he can possibly handle. With the exception of Kobe Bryant, who is coming off a few major surgeries, they have an almost clean slate, so Randle will be given the chance to be a primary option very early in his NBA career.

In all likelihood, he will have higher points and rebounds averages in his first season than Jones will have in his third season. As of now, there's still a decent chance that Jones ends up losing his starting spot in Houston, not because of anything he did, but because they end up signing Carmelo Anthony. If that happens, you can expect to see his stats plummet, but that doesn't have anything to do with his underlying talent level.

And when you compare the two closely, you might be surprised at what you find. In their freshman seasons at Kentucky, Jones averaged more points (15.7 to 15.0), assists (1.8 to 1.4), steals (1.1 to 0.5), blocks (1.9 to 0.8) and fewer turnovers (2.0 to 2.5). Randle had the edge in rebounds (10.5 to 8.8) and field goal percentage (50% to 44%), although that was partially mitigated by Jones taking 2.1 3's a game (33%) to Randle's 0.5 (16%). Jones also had the slight edge in PER - 25.5 to 24.5.

From a tools perspective, Jones is longer (7'2 wingspan to 7'0) and is an all-around better athlete. He's more of a combo, face-up 4, with the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack guys off the bounce, while Randle is more of a traditional 4, with a better post-up game and more functional strength to bully defenders closer to the basket. In terms of style, Jones is more outside-in while Randle is more inside-out.

However, even with the extra advantage in length, Jones was destroyed by LaMarcus Aldridge in the first-round of this year's playoffs. The Blazers got off to a 2-0 edge against the Rockets, with both wins coming on the road, primarily because Aldridge could shoot over Jones like he was a chair and was putting up 40+ ppg. This is the concern for Randle - he's even shorter and less athletic than Jones, so what is he going to do on D against guys like that?

Ultimately, in the modern NBA, with length and perimeter shooting becoming increasingly more important at the 4 position, neither Jones nor Randle may ever be a top 3-5 player at the position. Cuz while they are athletic, they aren't Blake Griffin, and while they are skilled, they aren't Kevin Love. If I was picking one of the two, I would take Jones because he's better defensively and he has a better all-around game that allows him to play off of other guys.

It's not to say that Randle isn't a high-level prospect in his own right, but it does tell you the difference between the Rockets and the Lakers. Right now, Randle is LA's top young player while Jones is 4-5 in the Houston hierarchy and that's before any moves they make in free agency this off-season. Randle is going to have the better per-game statistics, but that isn't the end-all be-all when it comes to comparing young players because so much of that comes down to context and opportunity.

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