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The Summer of 2019 was supposed to be a franchise-altering time for the Knicks. There were big names everywhere on the free agency and trade market, including Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, and on and on with great names for the taking.
Surely at least one of them would end up with the Knicks, right?
While the Knicks were rumored to have interest in just about every big name that summer, the team whiffed on landing a star, and instead pivoted to signing second-tier free agents on shorter, more team-friendly contracts.
The most lucrative of those deals went to Julius Randle, as the Knicks signed him to a three-year deal worth roughly $63 million.
Randle put up nice numbers for a bad Knicks team in 2019-20, but he’s taken his game to a new level this year, making now a perfect time to take a deep dive into what Randle has meant to the Knicks…
What Randle does well
Looking at only the stats from last season, Randle had a good debut season with the Knicks, averaging 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. But the Knicks were a bad team, finishing 21-45, and they were more often than not disjointed on the offensive end, and Randle did most of his work by just bargaining into the lane and either drawing contact or forcing up tough shots.
But under the direction of Tom Thibodeau, Randle looks like a new player. He still loves to take the ball at the top of the key and charge the lane, but he’s been more willing than ever to kick the ball out to open shooters instead of forcing a contested look. Thibodeau has called Randle the Knicks’ “engine” because the offense has often run through the veteran forward, and as he goes, so go the Knicks.
Randle is currently playing at an All-Star level and putting up career-best numbers across the board with 22.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game. Randle is currently one of just five players in the NBA averaging at least 20 points and 11 rebounds per game, joining Joel Embiid, Nikola Vucevic, Nikola Jokic, and Domantas Sabonis. And among that group, Randle’s 6.0 assists rank second only to Jokic’s 9.3 assists per contest.
In other words, there’s almost no one in the entire NBA putting up the kind of well-rounded numbers Randle is right now.
He also just seems to be playing with a bit more finesse in his game. He came into the season in incredible shape, and his improved conditioning has seemed to help him create space for himself both in the mid-range and beyond the arc, as he’s no longer just relying on using his body down low to get close-range shots. He’s been more willing to pull up for a jumper, and he’s ticked his three-point percentage up from just 27.7 percent last year to 35.6 percent this season.
He’s also taken on his leadership role and ran with it. There were some, including the author of this very article, who thought the best case for Randle was to drum up his trade value before the deadline, which would hopefully open a space for a rookie like Obi Toppin to start. And while Randle’s value is definitely jumping right now, it’s almost hard to see
Room for improvement
It’s difficult to be critical of Randle right now, as he’s doing everything asked of him within Thibodeau’s system. But there are a couple of areas to nitpick.
The first one is Randle’s proclivity to turn the ball over. After averaging 3.0 turnovers per game last season, Randle’s seen that number rise to 3.4 turnovers per game this season. Now, the optimistic approach would be to say that an increased turnover number is expected given how much Randle has been handling the ball and orchestrating the offense this season. Still , his 3.4 turnovers per game are the most on the team, with Elfrid Payton being next on the list at 2.1 per contest.
The other area is defense and foul trouble, which go hand-in-hand. Listed at 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, Randle is undersized for a true NBA four, but he’s also a lot bulkier than most of the stretch fours around the NBA today. As a result, there are times where Randle gives up too much height down low to taller players, and times where he doesn’t have the quickness to get out to defend stretch fours hanging out around the three-point line.
In either scenario where Randle is beaten, he very well may have to commit a foul to try to stop the basket. Randle leads the Knicks with an average of 3.5 personal fouls a game There’s not much he can do about it except maybe try to work on his lateral quickness to get out to the perimeter faster and stay with players slashing past him towards the basket.
But again, these are just nitpicky things in what’s been a tremendous start to the season for the veteran.
The buzz on Randle
From an NBA scout, via SNY’s Ian Begley:
The way he reacts to extra attention is like night and day. Last year, he was trying to attack it by himself. This year, the exact opposite ... Love the way he’s making reads and finding shooters. The shot selection is much better ... I know they love the shape he came (to training camp) in and it shows – especially on defense ... Credit to (Randle) for fixing what went wrong last season. Credit the Knicks and Thibodeau for putting him in the right spots ... The East is crowded, but he looks like an All-Star.
Randle came into this season in terrific shape, determined to prove that he wasn’t just an asset the Knicks could use in a trade to help their rebuild, but that he himself is a huge part of that rise back towards greatness.
In Thibodeau’s system, Randle has taken on extra responsibility, and he’s been everything Knicks fans could hope for. He’s putting up a double-double every night and recorded a monster triple-double against the Cavs on Dec. 29 when he went for 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists in a Knicks win.
There have also been six other games this season where Randle has come within three assists of triple-doubles, most recently against Golden State when he went for 16 points, 17 rebounds, and nine assists.
Through 19 games, the Knicks’ season has been hot and cold, but at 8-11 they currently sit just a half game out in the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks aren’t a championship-contending team at this point, but they at least have what it takes to make the playoffs. And Randle will continue to be the "engine" who will take the Knicks closer to where they need to be as a team.