Analyzing what Knicks Julius Randle is doing differently this season and whether it's sustainable

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David Vertsberger
·4 min read
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Julius Randle drives on Larry Nance Jr.
Julius Randle drives on Larry Nance Jr.

Julius Randle is playing at an All-Star level to begin the 2020-21 season, helping the Knicks get off to a surprising 4-3 start despite a handful of injuries and tough opening schedule.

His 22.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game on 51% shooting from the field and 41% from three is an impressive enough snapshot of his hot start, but it doesn’t begin to capture the reformation he’s undergone since last season. This is an entirely new player, an underwhelming flier turned potential cornerstone that’s winning the Knicks basketball games against serious competition.

Before training camp even began, videos of offseason pick-up runs featuring Randle pointed to maybe his most obvious improvement - his conditioning. Randle is in seemingly the best shape of his career, slimmed and toned for improved speed and stamina with the same strength and leaping ability he had previously. This has paid dividends on the defensive end, where the multiple efforts required out of Randle at his position were once a weakness.

Being able to guard a traditional power forward, a modern stringy 6-foot-7 stretch four or one of the many unicorns the NBA has in that slot, while having to play a little free safety to aid your center or perimeter teammates is a big ask. It’s come far more natural to Randle this season, in part thanks to new head coach Tom Thibodeau, who has no doubt sharpened his fundamentals up, but also because he’s able to cover more space and keep his energy up on that end. He’s now made multiple big defensive plays late in contests that have secured the Knicks victories.

In their latest win against the Hawks, Randle had to cover the crafty Trae Young on a switch with two minutes to play, stepping up to force a smothering drive into a Mitchell Robinson swat. Against the Pacers, Randle had a flurry of strong defensive possessions late, including one in which he soundly hedged out and recovered on three separate picks for Malcolm Brogdon. He also shot the gap on a similar play where Brogdon dumped the ball off to Domantas Sabonis, coming up with a steal, and later shut down a Sabonis post-up that has terrorized the league this season.

Randle’s shining moments defensively in 2019-20 were when he was hard to notice, playing well enough on that end to not draw any adverse reactions. This year he’s everywhere on that end, helping the helper, on top of his rotations and using his athleticism to make things harder for opponents in space. His offense is equally as loud as it was last season, but it’s a much different tune.

Despite playing six more minutes per game this season, Randle is averaging the same amount of field goal attempts, and scoring 2.6 more points a night. This improved efficiency is due not only to the work he’s put in on his touch from inside and out, but a shot profile more conducive to winning. Last season 31.9% and 55.5% of Randle’s attempts came off three dribbles or more and with a defender in his grill, respectively, per NBA.com/stats tracking data. Those numbers have dropped to 25.4% and 51.9% in 2020-21. The soul-crushing post-ups that seemed to always end in a forced shot or turnover? Randle is passing out of half his post-ups this year versus 36.2% last season.

Simply put, Randle has been much more of a team player on this side of the ball. He’s picking his spots instead of forcing the issue, and working to create for others as much as himself. When he’d demand the ball last season, it was likely to go one-on-one to try and score. Now, he’ll toss it over to an RJ Barrett or Elfrid Payton and immediately set a screen. Forced attempts once he drives into the teeth of the defense have been replaced with LeBron-esque kick outs to the perimeter, leading to his assist percentage more than doubling from last year. His primary reads on the offensive end have done a complete 180.

Year-to-year improvements of this magnitude are usually reserved for a rookie entering his sophomore year or the latter entering their third season. Entering his prime and seventh season with no postseason appearance to show for it, Randle looks determined to change his narrative under coach Thibs and win over Knicks fans that wrote him off after just one season. If he keeps up this level of play, not only should the team’s success continue, but he’ll have a serious argument for an All-Star berth.

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
New York
+145+4.5O 218.5
Sacramento
-176-4.5U 218.5