By Brian Spencer
Somebody purports to actually want you, Anthony Randolph, and even if that somebody is the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves and their bumbling GM David Kahn, it’s on you to seize the day. To prove the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks were wrong for giving up on you so quickly. Prove they were wrong, just like Amir Johnson is proving the Detroit Pistons were wrong.
Randolph was mostly an afterthought included in a little under-the-radar trade you may or may not have heard about that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York, and Madison Square Garden’s stock to within about $2 of its NASDAQ 52-week high. He’d spent most of the season wasting away on the end of Mike d’Antoni’s bench, along with career loiterer Eddy Curry, logging mop-up minutes in just 17 games before being shipped to Minnesota.
He played the role of a clunky benchwarmer marvelously during those spotty opportunities in New York, often seeming dazed and confused and looking nothing like the type of intriguing talent with massive upside he’s been billed as since entering the league as the 14th-overall pick in the ’08 draft. Many thought d’Antoni’s uptempo system would be a perfect fit, the magnet that drew out Randolph’s jump-out-of-the-gym skills and honed them into a disciplined, deadly suite of weapons that would pair perfectly with Amare Stoudemire. Whatever the reason, though, it obviously didn’t happen and he clearly didn’t gel with his coach.
Considering his dismal showing, it’s easy to point to a lack of basketball smarts–and maybe that’s indeed the case since, after all, Don Nelson, his coach in Golden State, also made those insinuations–but it could just be that it wasn’t a good fit for either party. He moves on to Minnesota at the still-green age of 21, to play for a GM that claims he’s been trying to land Randolph for nearly 2 years.
I don’t trust his new coach, Kurt Rambis (does anybody?), to give him much burn over the rest of the season, but something tells me Rambis might not be the one calling the shots in 2011-12. One way or the other, Randolph is going to have a shot to earn a spot in the rotation next season and to make a real impact.
The Case of Amir Johnson
Sometimes young, raw players like this with little experience in college (Randolph played just one season at LSU, earning First Team SEC All-Freshman Team honors) and few opportunities to work through their growing pains in the NBA just need time. Toronto Raptors forward Amir Johnson, whose skillset isn’t all that far from Randolph’s, is one such player who bounced around, but kept at it and is finally getting his chance.
The 6-9 Johnson spent five full seasons as a spot-duty backup, never appearing in more than 62 games or averaging more than 14:41 minutes per. He was drafted late in the second round of the ’05 draft by the then-stacked Detroit Pistons and, like Randolph in Golden State, had to make the most of limited chances. He rarely saw the court in his first two seasons–when he was still a teenager–then failed to make the leaps and bounds expected of him by team brass in his third and fourth seasons, when he averaged 3.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in about 13 foul-plagued minutes per. He was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks following the 2008-09 season, and they flipped him to the Raptors about 2 months later.
Now, after signing a five-year, $34 million extension with the team last summer, Johnson has finally gotten the opportunity for consistent minutes and has made the most of it, averaging 10.3 points on 59% shooting, 6.8 boards, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.2 blocks in about 26 minutes a night through 59 games (41 as a starter). Those certainly aren’t huge numbers, but his performance has been trending upward as the season has gone on and as the Raptors have sunk further and further in the standings and fully looked to the future: in 27 games in January and February, Johnson–who by the way still won’t turn 24 years old until May–has averaged 12 points (62% FG), 8 boards, 1.6 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.5 blocks.
He’s playing with more confidence and sustained energy than I saw in his first five years, and I think next season we might see him push 15-10-2 averages, especially if he can get on the floor for 30+ minutes a night. I had a mild obsession with Johnson during his years in Detroit, and though I wish he had reached this breakthrough with the Pistons, it’s good to see him finally showing what he’s capable of somewhere.
Will Randolph’s career follow the same trajectory? It could, but though there are a number of similarities between him and Johnson–raw, long and lanky, serious hops, tendency for foul trouble, etc.–Randolph is ahead of where Johnson was at this point in his career, and most would agree he has the potential to be a much more complete and impactful player.
The hype surrounding Randolph stems not just from his dominant stretches at LSU as a freshman, but also from his tantalizing turns in limited minutes during two seasons in Golden State in which he averaged 9.7 points, 6.1 boards, 1 assist, 0.8 steals, and 1.4 blocks in about 20 minutes per. Johnson never got that many minutes in Detroit, and never put up those kinds of stats; he’s just now putting them up, in fact. Randolph can be a special player, but he has to want it.
He’ll have a chance to prove it he does in fact want it. Forget about what happened in New York: let’s see what you can do in Minnesota, Anthony.
Anthony Randolph / Amir Johnson Photos Credit: Icon SMI