Third in a four-part series.
It feels a bit uncomfortable to use such terms to describe an 18-year-old, but much less so when that man happens to be University of Kentucky commit Julius Randle.
There's a strange need to compare burgeoning basketball prodigies to players with whom we're intimately familiar, but the numerous comparisons of Randle to a young Chris Webber feel as good as a perfectly broken-in T-shirt.
Randle's explosiveness, handle and athleticism are unique gifts in their own right, but his ability to knock down the mid-range jumper is a rarity among players his size. After watching the co-MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic play for a few minutes, it's not hard to understand why Roy Williams brought along a case full of rings - a collection that included Michael Jordan's 1992 NBA Finals ring - when he visited Randle in an attempt to recruit the 6'9" forward to North Carolina.
Ever since his sophomore year at Plano's Prestonwood Christian Academy, the 240-pound Randle has been the consensus No. 1 big man in the Class of 2013. From random open runs to impromptu dunk contests with fellow Texas native Marcus Smart, videos of Randle in a basketball gym are becoming nearly as popular as the Foot Locker AND1 mixtapes were back in the day.
Speaking of mixtapes, Randle's "official" senior year highlight package contains a few prideful boasts from the two-time state champion ("When I'm in the zone, I feel like nobody can guard me") peppered in the midst of more than a few expletive-inducing plays. However, the most telling part of the video is the portion where Glenn Smith of Metroplex Hoops notes that Randle has a little bit of Kendrick Lamar in him:
"To me, Julius is without question the top basketball player in the country. He brings... a certain aura and a certain swag that a lot of basketball players in this particular class [don't] have right now, you know? If he sees you, and he sees any sorts of weakness, he's going at you... which is a lost trait in a lot of basketball players these days."
"On the court, he has no friends. He just goes at you, and just goes at you... and then before you know it, he has a double-double."
Until now, Randle has been able to dominate partly because he's always been bigger, faster and stronger than the competition. That doesn't figure to change much during his brief stay in Lexington, but Randle will have to smooth out the (few) wrinkles in his game before he can excel at the NBA level.
Randle's low-post game could benefit from a few sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon, understandable since he wasn't forced to play with his back to the basket all that much. Scott Gleeson of USA Today wrote that Randle has been criticized by some for having a "lazy gene" (an assertion that ESPN's Dave Telep rebuts), but if Randle is this good with a questionable motor (21.0 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 65.2 FG% as a senior, despite missing three months with a broken right foot), imagine how dominant he could be with a coach who knows how to push the right buttons.
John Calipari will get the first crack at unlocking Randle's potential, but he ultimately may not have to do all that much in the motivation department. Last season, former McDonald's All-American forward Alex Poythress averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in his debut campaign at the University of Kentucky. This summer, Poythress is reportedly getting worked over by Randle during the Wildcats' offseason scrimmages.
ESPN's Chad Ford is already on record saying that Randle could wind up usurping Andrew Wiggins as the best player in the 2014 NBA Draft, and Fran Fraschilla recently echoed those sentiments in an article about the Kentucky phenom:
If there is one player in the country who could make a run at Andrew Wiggins as the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft, it's Randle.
At 6-9 and nearly 250 pounds, Randle has the physical gifts that scream "future NBA All-Star." He has a prototype NBA power forward body, in addition to above-average NBA athleticism at that position. And as a bonus, he plays with the requisite intensity to match those gifts.
Calipari is only a few months removed from assembling what may be the greatest collection of freshmen in the history of college basketball, and no one disputes that Randle is head and shoulders above his compatriots, several of whom (Dakari Johnson, Andrew and Aaron Harrison) are almost certain to be future lottery selections. Truth be told, the phrases "game changer" and "freak of nature" may not be adequate enough to describe the impact that Randle could have next season.
There are those who believe that second place signifies nothing more than the first loser. But if the No. 2 pick yields a player who is already being referred to as an "alpha beast", then perhaps a silver medal isn't so bad after all.