By Evan Hall
The accepted wisdom about this year's NBA draft is that the top 10 talent has separated itself into roughly two tiers. Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and, depending on who you're reading, Dante Exum constitute the top tier. The second tier is made up of a number of guys, one of whom is Julius Randle, the 6-foot-9 forward out of Kentucky. It's been a precipitous fall for Randle, who less than nine months ago was considered to be one of a triumvirate of guaranteed superstars, along with Parker and Wiggins. The discovery of Embiid and the increased boldness of GMs regarding the enigmatic Exum have not helped Randle's case, but beyond that, Randle has really only suffered from the pitiless laws of increased exposure. We knew a little about him, a sliver, really, of his whole profile, and now we know slightly more than that. It's not much, but in the pre-draft frenzy it seems like a lot, and it's certainly enough to dramatically alter Julius Randle's future.
Most of what you hear in scouting reports about Julius Randle -- nimble footwork, fundamentally sound, undersized for his position -- could have accurately been said about Paul Millsap, and likely was, before he was selected 47th overall in the 2006 NBA draft. By now, this has only become an aesthetic streak in the larger narrative of Millsap's career arc. It's a given now that he was incompetently passed over by teams who had, we can only assume, earnestly and confidently believed that the likes of David Noel and Craig Smith would make better pros than Millsap. They were wrong, and their wrongness now is only a passing anecdote, to be used at the pleasure of the Paul Millsap myth makers. That's a determined piece of revisionist history, at least in part because there are all kinds of environmental factors that contribute to a player's success in the NBA, but historical commentary of that sort has a well-established place in the modern sports zeitgeist. Writers, the damnable narcissists that we are, only paint with the colors they see.
But that's the only way writers or the shouty, suited men on your TV talk about Millsap now, after enough NBA games have been played for all the compliments and criticisms of his game to have coagulated into something like a consensus. Before all of this, when he was a prospect, he was talked about, as all prospects are, in the scientific jargon of the draftnik. He was a "tweener" who needed to "expand his shooting range." He was, in more relevant terms, a less famous Julius Randle.
In draft speak, the observation that Julius Randle's game is similar to Paul Millsap's is called a comp, but it functions, like most observations in draft analysis, as nothing more than a beatified pretension. A player comp seems like a helpful way to hone an assessment of a relatively unknown entity, because it turns something we don't know anything about into something we know a lot more about. But that's not true, really. It's a wild guess, repackaged as an educated approximation. It transforms someone who is frustratingly and stubbornly complex, a person with an unquantifiable and nebulously understood skillset, into just another simplistic commodity. The draft reduces whole, unique college players into a collection of finite factoids, because it has to.
Julius Randle was an interesting college player -- one whose shoulder-in-somebody's-gut low post game was the only agent of stability on a volcanically unpredictable but incomparably talented Kentucky team. That's Julius Randle the College Player, though. Julius Randle the Pro Prospect is 6-feet-9 inches in socks, and has a middling wing span of 7 feet. Julius Randle the College Player was central pillar on one of the most electric but inscrutable teams in college basketball history. Julius Randle the Pro Prospect is a series of data points. This may seem like an alternative way of understanding him in order to better predict his success, and it might be, if it only had a more extensive history of working.
That's the awful reality, buried in the subtext of draft-speak like "strengths and weaknesses" and "baseline talent," that terrifies teams and the scouts and GMs who work for them. No one knows anything about any of these guys. I guess, more precisely put, some people know a small percentage of knowable things about some number of players, and the rest of it is a carnival game. In fact, for as often as teams whiff on players they pick even in the lottery, it might as well be more than a parlor trick. He might not have admitted it vocally, but you get the sense that former Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn sincerely wondered, in his darker moments, after a glass of scotch, if the whole thing didn't function according to some secret laws of practical magic that someone had forgotten to teach him. Or, failing that, that there was some manual of industry secrets stored away in the desks of his competitors, the existence of which he could never physically verify.
Obviously some GMs, like Sam Presti of the Thunder or R.C. Buford of the Spurs, appear to have some propensity for judging talent, but even those guys benefit from an undeniable degree of systemic support. Kawhi Leonard was a steal at 15 overall in a weak draft, but he also gets to play with three future Hall of Famers and learn from the league's best coach. R.C. Buford might not know what he's doing either at the draft, and you'd never know it, because he's done so well at every other aspect of his job. This isn't to say the draft is an unforgiving vacuum of meaning, or a nihilistic realm governed only by chance and entrenched privilege. But it's also not entirely not that.
Which brings us back to Julius Randle, who we thought we knew when we said he was one of the three most talented players in the draft and a lock to become an all-star, and who we think we know now when we say he could be a contributing player on a contender, but not a franchise centerpiece like the top tier prospects. Julius Randle changed certainly, both as a basketball player and a human being, in that one year at Kentucky, because he's a person and that's what people do, given the time. But that's not what anyone is saying when they re-appropriate his value as a future pro. What they're saying is that he wasn't who we thought he was, or that he didn't become, in that one year at Kentucky (where, it should be noted, his production was prolific), what we expected he might. We might have been wrong then, and are conveniently correct now, or we might be wrong now. It doesn't really matter which of those two options is true, because the draft, like the house, always wins. It will still make fools of us all, because no matter what happens with Julius Randle, everyone was wrong about him at least once.
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Evan Hall is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho, who has written for the Classical and Salt City Hoops of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. You can find him on Twitter @evanghall.