Who has been the Knicks best player - Julius Randle or Jalen Brunson?
After a shaky start out of the gates, the Knicks have turned their 2022-23 campaign into a solid redemption story following last year’s disappointing finish. It’s been a top-to-bottom collective effort, but special recognition is due for Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson, the team’s two leading scorers and All-Star candidates.
Randle suited up in every game this season, and leads the team with 24.4 points per game, along with 10.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 54.8 percent shooting from two and 33.4 percent from three. Brunson has only missed three games, averaging 22.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists on 49.5 percent shooting from two and 39.9 percent shooting from three.
Without their production, New York would be in the thick of the lottery instead of the seventh seed. Unfortunately, the NBA will likely only recognize one as an All-Star this season given the stiff competition and the Knicks’ standing. Which of Randle and Brunson receives the honor will depend on a litany of factors, including how stacked their individual positions are and how coaches view the options. But it does beg the simpler question: who has been the better player this season?
The case for Randle
As mentioned, Randle is New York’s iron man, showing up nightly, playing 1639 minutes halfway through the season, 173 more than Brunson and anybody else on the Knicks, and second-highest in the NBA. To do that and consistently string together 24-11-4 is incredible.
It’s a good thing he’s so resilient too, because his production can’t be easily replaced, at least on this Knicks team. New York nets 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with Randle on the court, a dead average team without him.
High-level self-creation on top of a strong all-around game will have that impact, and Randle’s arguably drawn more double teams and been more effective against them. The Knicks are actually slightly worse statistically with Brunson in the game, maybe because he spends more time playing with bench units, because Immanuel Quickley’s production is similar enough, or because it’s an odd blip that’s to be ignored.
Brunson is certainly a well-rounded player, but Randle plays bigger roles in the defense and on the glass, while also creating for others. Head coach Tom Thibodeau will often hide Brunson off opposing stars, while Randle has been a force in the paint and on switches. Randle isn’t just leading the team in scoring, but in rebounds too, actually having collected 1.5x more than the second-place man, Mitchell Robinson.
Speaking of rebounds, he’s on a six-game streak of 15+ boards, pulling down double-digit rebounds in 18 of his last 19 games. There’s also the 13-game stretch in which he averaged 30 points a night, and the fact he has an extra 30 and 40-point game on Brunson.
The case for Brunson
Peak Randle may be better than Brunson, but on a given night it’s the latter putting in a more consistent, poised effort. Randle has a habit for taking some stretches off, falling asleep defensively or lulling himself into some poor offensive attempts. When Brunson’s playing, he’s 100 percent effort all the time, entirely dependable. It shows in his efficiency and ball control. Brunson is the sharper shooter than Randle, who put up 30 games below 50 percent shooting to his 19.
Brunson also has the far superior assist-to-turnover ratio, while Randle is 15th in the league in turnovers, sitting among high usage star guards. Statistics don’t paint the whole picture, but anybody who’s watched the Knicks know their point guard is generally the more trustworthy decision-maker.
Though the scoring title belongs to Randle, come crunch time it’s Brunson that takes over for the Knicks. With the game within three points and three minutes or fewer remaining on the clock, it’s Brunson leading the way with 54 points in 46 clutch minutes to Randle’s 23.
Not only is Brunson the go-to scorer in the clutch, he’s delivered at a 54.8 percent shooting mark, while Randle scored 17 of his 23 at the free throw line, shooting 25 percent from the field in crunch time.
As far as Brunson’s big runs of the season, he’s currently amidst a nine-game tear where he’s averaging 31.7 points and over 40 minutes a game on 50 percent shooting from all ranges. He also has the edge over Randle according to FiveThirtyEight’s player ratings.