Julius Randle is everything for the New York Knicks – for now at least.
Randle entered the NBA in the 2014 draft. Selected seventh overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, the former Kentucky Wildcat was a bowling bowl on the offensive end, viewed as a seriously unique athlete.
But there were question marks, too. Criticisms centered around the potential inability of Randle’s game to translate to the NBA. He was regarded as undersized, lacking the length needed to play amongst big men and the strength required to bully power forwards. Further, while his form was strong, his jump shot was considered inconsistent at best.
Of course, a lot of those criticisms were valid; scouts do their best to balance enthusiasm and caution and, when a prospect doesn’t fit into an existing mold, they err on the side of caution.
But there was a mold for Randle, it’s just that of a unicorn. Charles Barkley. Shawn Kemp. Blake Griffin. Years later, that role had cemented itself, as many compared expected-superstar Zion Williamson to Randle prior to the 2019 NBA Draft. Some of those comparisons were facetious, while others were setting a floor for Williamson. Either way, it speaks to the challenges the industry has faced when projecting the non-prototypical player.
And, if we look back at Randle’s pre-2020-21 career, it’s understandable why fans and media members alike were critical.
Randle had stretches last season – like three consecutive 30-point games in December – where he looked the part. But there were far too many mistakes along the way; ill-conceived spin moves into traffic, just plain bad shots and missed opportunities to find the open man. What’s more, the Knicks ended the season in March at 21-45. So the “above-average player who doesn’t affect winnings” narrative continued to hound him.
The season before last, when Randle was with the New Orleans Pelicans, there was also evidence that he might be better than we all thought. He’d increased his scoring output from 16.4 points per game during the 2017-18 season to 21.4 in 2018-19. But everything else looked the same, more or less. Randle was also hurt by the fact that, in a supporting role alongside Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, the team won just 35 games and failed to make the postseason.
The media can be cut-throat in what they demand of young players. And, more often than not, they are correct in their assumptions, at least its more tenured members are; no one has a crystal ball that can predict future growth, most players just don’t grow into stars.
But in Randle’s case, it’s safe to assume we were wrong.
Randle, signed by the Knicks as a 24-year-old, was almost immediately written off as a finished product with nowhere else to go but down. But he was not happy with his pre-2020-21 statistics, with being considered “average” or even slightly above. In fact, it doesn’t seem as though any of it phased him at all. Rather, Randle took each criticism as motivation and approached this past offseason with a renewed focus and dedication.
“A lot of people may have written me off. A lot of people may have had their doubts or whatever in me,” Randle told the media after Monday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks, in which he scored 44 points. “And that was just motivation, that was fuel. For me, it was just coming back a better player and a better teammate than I was last year.”
The results speak for themselves. Randle, a player regarded as out of shape for much of his career, has yet to miss a game for the Knicks and is averaging a career-high 36.7 minutes per game. Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for leaning on his best players, so that latter stat isn’t that surprising, but the fact that Randle has produced so well in such a high usage role speaks to the work he’s put in. For reference, Randle is playing 4.5 more minutes per game this season than he did in his next highest season average (2019-20) – a 13 percent increase.
In the grand scheme of his breakout campaign, however, Randle’s durability and stamina have played but a minor role. He’s averaging a career-high in points (23.1), rebounds (11.0) and assists (5.6) per game, while he’s also shooting a career-best 40.6% on three-point attempts – up from a sub-30% career average – on a career-high 4.4 three-point attempts per game.
As much as Randle has improved as a three-point shooter, he’s also proven more self-aware on the floor. Randle has smartly split his shot selection across the parquet – shooting 21% of his attempts at the rim (a career-low), 20% from 3-10 feet, 19% from 10-16 feet, 14% from 16 feet–the three-point line and 26.7% from beyond the arc. And he’s shooting a career-best percentage, or close to it, from each range. The advanced metrics would also seem to support the idea that Randle is simply a different player this season; currently posting a career-high 20.9 PER, good for 35th in the NBA, Randle has also assisted on a career-best 25.9% of his teammates’ field goals when on the floor.
Still, Randle and the Knicks are 14-16, just barely in the playoff picture. How different is this year’s view of Randle if he’s still unable to lead a winning team?
Winning in the NBA isn’t as simple as some might make it out to be. The best rosters are often loaded with years of experience while, in today’s game, teams are almost required to have multiple stars if they want to compete. The Knicks, even with Randle, are unquestionably too young to compete this season. That said, Randle has dragged them to respectability so far this season, earning their young core plenty of that necessary experience along the way.
Fans often examine rosters in a vacuum — they don’t understand the effect that veterans can have on younger players. But the effect Randle has on his younger teammates is obvious. In fact, following Monday’s game against the Hawks, a number of those teammates, including Immanuel Quickly and RJ Barrett, gushed about Randle’s play, jokingly (or not) insisting on their leader’s inclusion in this season’s All-Star festivities. Their sentiment?
“If this man is not an All-Star, it’s a problem.”
And his coach, not known for overly pumping up anyone, did more of the same.
“Absolutely,” Thibodeau said when asked about Randle’s All-Star candidacy following the game. “It’s not just what he’s done statistically, but the impact on winning, I think. He’s making other people better. He’s played an all-around game, strong on both sides of the ball. He’s played an unselfish game, doing it in a number of different ways, playing multiple positions. He’s doing it all.”
“The most important thing is the impact that he’s having on winning and, hopefully, it’ll be recognized. But I know there’s a great appreciation by his teammates and his coaches, the organization, certainly our fans, for what he’s bringing to our team.”
Randle may or not be named to an All-Star team this season. The starters for the Eastern and Western Conferences were named last night and he was not among them – likely a surprise to no one. But Randle’s turned heads and raised eyebrows with his play this season. And he’s convinced a good chunk of the media, as well as a fan base that has consistently and predictably looked for the next best thing over the last 20 seasons, to trust him to lead New York into the future.
All-Star or not, Julius Randle is a star. And he might just be on his way to convincing the Knicks that it’s time to add another one.