Yesterday, Grantland's Jonathan Abrams put together a terrific feature on Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph, tracing Randolph's checkered past to his troubled hometown of Marion, Ind. and looking at how Randolph has grown off the court from his days a member of the Jail Blazers. I think there's a second story here, one that Abrams did not have time to entirely flesh out in the course of his piece. Randolph has had a remarkable NBA career in at least three acts, one that reminds us how often the path to stardom features a variety of curves along the way.
What also makes Randolph interesting is that he's part of the first generation of players whose entire careers have been covered by statistical analysts. I first wrote about Randolph when I favored Michael Bradley for the Seattle SuperSonics, who were expected to draft a power forward in the 2001 lottery (they ended up going with Vladimir Radmanovic, and I later learned about the importance of age to draft analysis). We'll sprinkle in some of those assessments as we follow Randolph's development.
THE PER-MINUTE STAR
Long before Paul Millsap had his own doctrine, Randolph was a favorite of analysts championing the then-revolutionary idea that per-minute performance is the best indicator of how bench players will perform in the future.
Stuck behind Rasheed Wallace and Dale Davis on a veteran Portland Trail Blazers squad that still aimed to topple the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference, Randolph got few minutes in his first two years out of Michigan State. He played just 238 total as a rookie before playing 16.9 minutes per game off the bench in his second season. So when Randolph moved into the starting lineup and averaged 20.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in 2003-04, the performance seemingly came out of nowhere. Randolph was rewarded with the NBA's Most Improved Player award.
As is so often the case, the breakout season was primarily a function of playing time. Randolph's per-36 minute averages in points and rebounds scarcely budged (he went from 18.0 and 9.5 to 19.1 and 10.0). So it was that before the season I called Randolph a "strong Most Improved Player candidate and future star." In that year's edition of Pro Basketball Prospectus, John Hollinger wrote that Randolph "should be an All-Star within a couple of seasons." That would take a little longer.
OVERRATED AND OVERPAID
At the age of 22, Randolph was one of just four NBA players to average 20 and 10 in 2003-04. The others? Tim Duncan, MVP Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal. Randolph should have been coming into his own as a superstar. Instead, he headed backwards after signing a six-year, $84 million extension to his rookie contract. In part, injury was to blame. In April 2005, Randolph underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee. He returned in time for training camp and played in 74 games the following season, but wasn't the same physically, making a career-worst 44.3 percent of his two-point attempts.
Randolph bounced back in 2006-07, when he actually posted the best WARP total (7.6) of his career to date. By that point, however, it had become clear that Randolph did not fit either on or off the court with Portland's rebuilding project. Weaknesses that had been overlooked or shrugged off early in Randolph's career, including poor shot selection and indifferent defense, grew more troubling in his mid-20s. So when the Blazers dumped Randolph to the New York Knicks hours after selecting Greg Oden with the top pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, they had to take back Steve Francis' contract along with Channing Frye. Francis was bought out before ever playing in Portland, getting $30 million for his trouble.
The draft-night deal was the first of three Randolph trades over the next 25 months. His time in New York, short and ill-fated as it was, yielded the defining memory of Randolph's fall: a possession where he tried and failed to dribble between his legs, then hoisted up an airball from just inside the three-point line. The YouTube clip of what was called the worst possession ever has more than 175,000 views.
REBIRTH IN MEMPHIS
The last Randolph trade sent him from the L.A. Clippers to Memphis for the expiring contract of Quentin Richardson during the summer of 2009. In our first incarnation of the Pro Basketball Prospectus, I lauded Mike Dunleavy for finding "another sucker" to deal for his remaining two years at an exorbitant salary. While the trade has worked out fine for the Clippers, who added a promising young power forward named Blake Griffin with the No. 1 pick, the Grizzlies haven't regretted it since.
Under Lionel Hollins, Randolph was able to refocus his game. The change is most evident in his offensive rebounding and three-point attempts. After steadily drifting to the perimeter, Randolph went back to the paint, using his strength to overpower opponents for second chances in Memphis. He went from attempting threes on nine percent of his plays in 2008-09 to just three percent in 2009-10. At the same time, his offensive rebound percentage improved from 9.9 percent to 12.6 percent, which put him back in the NBA's top 10.
Cutting out the long-range attempts and getting more putbacks also had the benefit of making Randolph a more efficient scorer. Even in his better, younger days, Randolph's True Shooting Percentage had been worse than average. The .546 mark he posted in 2009-10 was his best since his second season, and it resulted in Randolph's overdue first trip to the All-Star Game, some six years and three teams after he won Most Improved Player. Randolph was even better in 2010-11, when he led an upstart Grizzlies team to the fourth first-round upset ever pulled by a No. 8 seed over a No. 1. His 12.2 WARP that season ranked Randolph 13th in the NBA.
Unfortunately, there's a fourth act coming. Randolph turned 30 before last season, and he's both older and has played longer on his surgically repaired knee than Amar'e Stoudemire, who already appears to have broken down. At some point, injuries and declining quickness will catch up with Randolph. Already, a torn MCL ligament in the same knee as his microfracture ruined his 2011-12 season. For now, Randolph has bounced back nicely as part of one of the league's surprise teams. Memphis was 8-1 before losing to Denver at home Monday night. Randolph as a cornerstone of an elite team was difficult to predict after he spent six consecutive seasons in the lottery during what should have been his prime. Since little of Randolph's career has followed a script thus far, why start now?
For a comprehensive guide to the 2012-13 season, check out Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, now available in .PDF and paperback formats.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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