Right system, right mindset, right stuff: Delving into the evolution of Knicks star Julius Randle

Julius Randle Knicks
Julius Randle is off to a blazing start for the Knicks in 2021.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Julius Randle All-Star bandwagon is leaving the station shortly; so much for those initial offseason hopes that he would be traded away.

The New York Knicks’ power forward is playing near an elite status this season, quickly becoming “the guy” for a team that is quickly becoming one of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA.

After a 112-100 win on Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz in which Randle posted 30 points with 16 rebounds and seven assists, the Knicks improved to 5-3 — their best start through eight games in eight years.

New York’s early resurgence, which has been navigated by first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau, has been headlined by the revampment of Randle’s game.

He’s averaging more points per game (23.1) than Devin Booker, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Russell Westbrook.

He’s averaging more rebounds per game (12.0) than Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He’s averaging as many assists per game (7.4) as LeBron James, and more than Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving.

“It’s a lot of fun, honestly,” Randle said of his and the Knicks’ good fortunes. “It’s unfortunate that we can’t have our fans in here to experience the energy of this team, but we’re all out there just playing hard, playing for each other, and it’s just amazing, the growth of our team and the confidence that we have as a team is great, so we just want to keep it going.

“We’re playing hard, playing together on both ends of the floor. It’s really just making my job easier. I’m just able to play and play off my teammates and just play with great energy.”

This is a brand of Julius Randle never seen before. An unselfish, both-sides-of-the-floor-excelling, sometimes-point-forward who is as dangerous a facilitator as he is a consistent scorer.

“He’s our engine. He plays with a lot of toughness and there’s a lot of multiple-effort plays that he’s making,” Thibodeau said of Randle. “But he’s also playing unselfishly… Those guys are very hard to guard and his shooting has improved.”

The 26-year-old is shooting 48.5% from the field, which is a healthy percentage for a player who’s averaging four three-point attempts per night.

Then there is his complete buying in of Thibodeau’s defense-first, all-out system that has the Knicks playing exciting basketball for the first time in what feels like ages.

Randle already has a defensive box plus-minus score — which estimates a player’s contribution to their team per 100 possessions when that player is on the court — of 0.9 in just eight games. It’s the first time in his seven-year career that he has a mark over zero.

His Defensive Win Shares is also at 0.5, which is on pace to smash his previous career-best of 2.6 in 82 games back in 2017-18 when he was with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“He’s doing a lot of things for us really well,” Thibodeau said. “Defensively, the rebounding… we’re asking him to play back-up center right now also [with Nerlens Noel injured]. He’s doing everything and playing big minutes.

“He comes in the next day, works, takes care of his body… great in the film sessions. That’s the kind of leadership that is invaluable to the team.”

Randle came back for the 2021 season in the best shape of his career, which helps sustain a heavy workload that he’s currently undertaking. He leads the NBA with an average of 38.5 minutes played per night.

Quite a transformation considering this was a talent that was written off by the Lakers after being taken seventh overall in the 2014 draft and later the New Orleans Pelicans.

“When you look at most players in this league, there’s a progression to becoming that type of player,” Thibodeau said. “They don’t get there overnight. They have to take steps to get there along the way. Each year he’s gained experience. That’s probably the most valuable teacher.

“You learn through listening, trial and error… I think all the experiences he had with LA and New Orleans and to take all of that with the pause in the season, he allows you to step back and reflect on the things you learned over time.”