Julius Randle’s teammates blocked him from the microphone set up in Madison Square Garden to offer an opening statement on his behalf. Randle had just dropped 44 points on the Atlanta Hawks to carry his New York Knicks to their third straight victory, and his support cast had a message they wanted to share with the world before he began his post-game interview
“If this man’s not an All-Star, there’s a problem,” said Theo Pinson while surrounded by R.J. Barrett and Immanuel Quickley. They weren’t wrong.
In his seventh NBA season, Randle has blossomed into the leader of an alarmingly competent Knicks team during head coach Tom Thibodeau’s first season in charge. Randle is putting up career-best numbers in scoring (23.1 points per game), assists, and rebounding, where’s he’s top-10 in the league. He’s also second in the NBA in minutes per game.
A year after finishing 21-45 and being one of eight teams to miss the season restart in the bubble, the Knicks are one game under .500 and fighting for playoff position. If the season ended today, New York would be the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. A Knicks defense that finished No. 23 last year has jumped to No. 3 under Thibodeau, and young players like Barrett and Quickley have turned into dependable performers overnight. None of this would be possible without Randle’s star turn, though.
While he’s still only 26 years old, the thought of Randle putting together an All-Star season at this point in his career felt like a long shot. Not anymore. The talent Randle has shown from an early age has always been there, he just needed a team that could put him in the best position to succeed. It’s all coming together in his second season with the Knicks.
It wasn’t all that long ago when Randle was considered one of the brightest young basketball prospects in America. As a high school senior out of Prestonwood Christian in Plano, Texas, Randle was considered a consensus top-three prospect in the class of 2013 with Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. The 6’9 forward built his reputation bulldozing through overmatched teenagers, but his physicality wasn’t the only part of his game that made him such a tantalizing long-term prospect.
The vision of Randle as a future NBA star was on display as he arrived in Chicago for the 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game. In the practices leading up to the game, Randle’s talent jumped off the floor for his burgeoning skill level as much as his raw power. Yes, Randle looked like the strongest player on the floor, and one of the fastest too. He was also handling the ball in transition, making reads as a passer, blowing by defenders off the dribble, and bodying opposing players at the rim.
Randle wasn’t even supposed to be a McDonald’s All-American after a fractured right foot cost him almost all of his senior season. Instead, he returned for the final five games and led Prestonwood to its second-straight state championship. If he was only a late addition to the event because of his injury, he sure didn’t look like someone coming off crutches weeks earlier against his most talented peers from around the country.
Randle’s ability to flash guard skills in the body of a throwback power forward is always what made him so intriguing. In those days, Randle’s ball handling ability was at the top of his scouting report. “A very talented ball-handler, Randle has an excellent first step and an array of shot-creating skills he can utilize in the mid or high post,” wrote DraftExpress in their first analysis of Randle in Jan. of 2012 as a high school junior.
Randle would commit to Kentucky a couple of weeks before the game, becoming the crown jewel of a class that had a record six McDonald’s All-Americans. There was buzz about a perfect season for the Wildcats as Randle arrived on campus, but Big Blue Nation would have to wait another year until it almost came true with Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker. Instead, Randle’s ‘Cats struggled to live up to expectations. Kentucky had loads of size and talent, but it had no shooting, as seems to be the case every year in Lexington. After dropping a string of games in the second half of SEC play, Kentucky was given a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament before going on a
Cinderella run to the national title game that ended with a loss to UConn.
Randle entered the draft as expected, but his stock had taken a small hit. Kentucky didn’t let him create much with the ball in his hands, and didn’t have the spacing required to maximize his brutalizing drives to the basket. He watched Wiggins and Parker go 1-2, and then he fell to the Lakers at No. 7. Only 14 minutes into the first game of his NBA career, Randle suffered a broken tibia in his right leg and would miss the rest of the season.
Randle played 81 games in his second season, but that year was all about Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour. He took steps forward as a scorer and rebounder the next two years, but didn’t exactly look like the future star he was promised to be out of high school. When LeBron James committed to the Lakers on the first day of free agency in the summer of 2018, Randle asked the franchise to allow him to become an unrestricted free agent. He would sign the Pelicans for a season playing in another crowded front court with Anthony Davis. Randle would enjoy the best season of his career in New Orleans, but he was on the move again in the summer.
Randle was a Knick, signing a three-year, $63 million with a team option for the third season only after the team watched Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving join their crosstown rivals in Brooklyn. No one counted on Randle to be the savior the Knicks were hoping to land in free agency, and in his first season, he looked like anything but that.
Head coach David Fizdale talked about emphasizing Randle’s creation ability when he showed up in New York, but the Knicks couldn’t help but get in their own way. They spent all of their cap space on power forwards in free agency, signing Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, and Marcus Morris in addition to Randle. The season was a disaster from the opening tip-off. Fizdale was fired after a 4-18 start, and the season was essentially a wash from then on.
Both Randle and the Knicks had very little in the way of expectations coming into this year, but they did have Thibodeau on their side. While critics rolled their eyes at the hiring of another retread head coach that had long-standing ties to New York’s new front office, Thibodeau has immediately made the Knicks look more organized, disciplined, and professional. No one has benefitted more than Randle.
Thibodeau once reworked his offense with the Chicago Bulls to make Joakim Noah a ‘point-center’ in the absence of Derrick Rose to injury. He’s essentially done the same thing with Randle this year. If Randle isn’t dribbling the ball up the court after made baskets, he is the focal point of every offensive possession for New York. Thibodeau has helped simplify the game for Randle, getting him the ball in spots where he can make can make easy reads on when to attack and when to look for a teammate. Randle has made those actions even more effective by making shocking strides as a shooter.
Randle is fully tapped into his creation skills
The playmaking boom Randle is experiencing this season hasn’t come from increased usage. His usage rate of 27.6 percent is almost identical to what it’s been the last two years. Meanwhile, his assist rate — which was exactly 15.8 percent the previous three seasons — has risen to a career-best 25.9 percent. He’s averaging two more assists per game than any of his teammates.
How is this happening? For one, Randle has the ball more than ever before even if he isn’t finishing plays. He ranks No. 6 in the league in touches this season and No. 15 in passes thrown per game, both numbers way up from last year. Randle is throwing as many passes as Draymond Green each night, and the only true bigs ahead of him are Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.
It feels like Randle is making quicker reads with the ball. Would he make this pass last year?
Even during his big 44-point performance against the Hawks, Randle also finished with five assists. Earlier in his career he might have tried to draw a foul in this situation.
Now he can see the floor and make a pass for three points instead of two:
The Knicks run actions to get switches on Randle early in the shot clock where he tries to punish smaller defenders with his physicality. When that doesn’t work, he now has a Plan B. Randle has learned how the read the help and where to go with the ball when the defense collapses on him.
Even when it doesn’t look pretty, it can be effective:
Knicks Rook Immanuel Quickley goes for the DEEP 3 after a long pass from Julius Randle! pic.twitter.com/lTS2UBLm6q— BenchWarmerPost (@BenchWarmerPost) February 16, 2021
As Randle’s playmaking numbers have jumped, he’s also lowered his turnover percentage from last season. Part of this is the maturity that comes with having six years of experience under your belt. Part of it is a new role in a new scheme. The final piece for Randle has been forcing defenses to respect him from new areas on the court, which has opened up the rest of his game.
Randle’s improved shooting has been remarkable
If Randle’s playmaking skills were always bubbling just below the surface, his shooting touch had to be built from scratch. After hitting only three three-pointers in his season at Kentucky, Randle made just 37 three-pointers in his next 237 games after recovering from the injury his rookie year.
Randle finally started hitting threes during his one season in New Orleans, making a remarkable jump to can 67 triples on 34.4 percent shooting. He made a similar number of threes last year with the Knicks, but saw his percentage drop to 27.7 percent. With plenty of free time on his hands after New York’s season ended in March, Randle dedicated himself to remaking his jump shot. He took up to 1,500 jumpers per day over the extended offseason, according to The Athletic. He changed his diet, stopped drinking alcohol, and got in better shape. It’s all paying off for him right now.
After going 7-for-13 from three-point range against the Hawks, Randle is now shooting 40.3 percent from behind the arc on the season on 4.4 attempts per game. He’s taking and making shots he could never dream of before.
Randle hasn’t just improved as a three-point shooter, he’s improved as a shooter everywhere. He’s making 80.2 percent of his free throws after never hitting better than 73 percent before. He’s also taking and making way more long twos than ever before. A season ago, Randle took eight percent of his shots from between 16-feet and the three-point line and made 35.8 percent of them, per Basketball Reference. This year, he’s taking 13.6 percent of his shots from the same distance, while making a remarkable 47 percent of those attempts.
This is the look of a man who is confident shooting the ball:
Randle is likely due for some regression, but it’s clear he’s put a serious amount of work into improving his shot from a variety of different situations. Play off Randle at your own risk now. He’s ready to burn you.
Julius Randle always had these skills. Now he’s turned into an All-Star
When Randle started his rise up the basketball word as a top-ranked high school player, the term ‘stretch four’ wasn’t yet widely accepted in the basketball lexicon. He entered the league just as it was seriously starting to evolve, with players at his position needing to adapt more than anyone else. It’s been a long road, but Randle has worked to fit his game into today’s league.
It’s clear that the game is slowing down for Randle in his seventh year. His ability to punish weaker defenders remains the foundation of his skill set, but there’s so much more where that came from. Randle won’t hesitate to take a jump shot with a few inches of space. Trap him and he’ll find the open teammate. He’s even playing a sizable role on a top-three defense in the league so far.
Randle isn’t just putting up numbers, he’s also helping his team win. He has a positive net rating for the first time in his career, per NBA.com.
Randle always had the ability to be an All-Star dating back his high school days when he was simply more dominant than any of his peers. He just needed the right system, right coach, and right development track. It’s all come together in his seventh season. The player powering the Knicks into playoff contention and turning into an All-Star before our eyes — this is who Julius Randle was always destined to be.