This is Julius Randle’s sixth season and by far his best. The Knicks forward is averaging 22.6 points and 12.0 rebounds in 37.7 minutes, all career highs. He is shooting 36% from three, something he has never done before. His career-high 7.3 assists have taken everyone by surprise because they are 4.2 more assists than last season. At 26 years old, Randle’s game has matured and he’s the biggest surprise of the young NBA season. And so are the Knicks. Randle is playing the best defense of his career because he understands three very important things: what his game is about, what the Knicks need, and how to thrive with the workaholic Thibs.
Something else happened to Julius Randle that’s more important than experience and meeting the moment. He was left out. Rejected. While most NBA teams assembled for the bubble, the Knicks were on the outside looking in. It infuriated Randle who had a good season his first year with New York, 19 and 9. So Randle did what he does best. He pushed himself in every aspect of the game. He fed off his rage.
What did it look like? According to his trainer Tyler Relph there were 6 am workouts and footwork drills and shooting drills, 1,200 shots every day for nine months. “He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. It isn’t easy to average 20 and 10 and 3 in the NBA. You don’t do that just by showing up. He took it to an unbelievable level this summer.”
It’s the one talent that is not taught. Want-to. Desire. Drive. Relph challenged Randle to be the best player in the league. He’s not. But he’s in good company, hanging (stat wise) with the best power forwards in the game.
In the first game of his NBA career, Randle broke his leg. That was a window into the adversity he was going to face. Although he struggled at times under the despotic leadership of Lakers coach Byron Scott, Randle’s greatest talent has always been work ethic. He plays harder than anyone on the court. Not explosive, not a shot blocker, Randle must outwork taller players at his position.
For a while now, Randle’s game has been under the microscope. Overmatched by size, he played well for the Lakers, had a good season playing with Anthony Davis in New Orleans, and this year with the Knicks he is their best player. It helps this is the last year of a guaranteed contract ($18,900,000). He has $4 million guaranteed for next season, which makes him an attractive trade piece. The team he is traded to can waive him after the season with a small payout in order to create cap space. Or, they can keep him. Or, the Knicks, based on his play this season, can offer him a max contract.
Is Randle worth it, worth a $140 million deal as he begins his prime? It depends on how consistent he is, if his numbers continue and if the Knicks can eek into the 7th or 8th seed. They are 6th after 9 games. Brooklyn will make their run and so will the Heat. Other than that, the Knicks, with a dominant Randle and a Thibs philosophy changing the locker room, have a puncher’s chance. But a lot must go right.
For starters, RJ Barrett must shoot better than 38%. He hasn’t improved from his rookie year. In arenas without fans, it’s not encouraging that Barrett still struggles. On a positive note, Thibodeau is the glue the Knicks need, at least in this first year. They have an identity and that identity is simple: give the ball to Randle. Everything Randle is about- hard work, persistence, dedication- is a match for Thibs. That he got Randle to make other players better is why the Knicks are overperforming expectations.
The season is very young, but Randle’s numbers are noteworthy. He’s making 44% of his jumpers and in the last 3 minutes of the quarter, 54% of his shots drop. Every part of the floor he can get buckets and it helps open the lane. Though he’s undersized, Randle has always been about effort.
Against Utah, Randle had an impressive stat line of 30 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 assists. Even when his game is off, and fouls too much and only has 18 points against OKC he still gives 12 rebounds. Only two games this season, the first two, did Randle not pull 10 boards or more.
When players are in their mid-twenties and show you who they are you better believe them. Now that Randle is showing the league what is possible, the expectations rise and so does the pressure. Can he keep it up? centers every Randle discussion. For the Knicks to do anything this season, he must be extraordinary.
Which has been his 2020-21.