clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Which Julius Randle Will the Knicks Get This Year?

New York’s much-maligned star took a massive step back last season, but he could be primed for a bounce-back season if he’s willing to adjust his game—and his temperament.

The Julius Randle Experience in New York has been nothing short of a roller coaster ever since the power forward signed with the Knicks in 2019. Year 1 was a lost season that included the dismissal of the old regime—longtime executive Steve Mills and head coach David Fizdale—as the team fell short of 30 wins for the third consecutive year. After a subsequent overhaul headlined by the additions of team president Leon Rose and head coach Tom Thibodeau, Year 2 saw the Knicks reach heights they have rarely seen in the 21st century, as they almost doubled their previous win total to secure their first playoff berth since 2013. That largely was due to Randle’s career performance, which led to him winning Most Improved Player and a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. But just like any good roller coaster, what followed was a steep—and I mean, like, Kingda Ka steep—fall back to reality.

Last season began in pure euphoria (Bing bong!) for Knicks fans, and the team was met with heightened expectations that it hadn’t faced since STAT and Melo shared the Garden floor together. As the star of the team and the new face of the franchise, Randle—the guy who proclaimed to the home crowd and the rest of the basketball world, “New York, we here”—carried much of the weight of those expectations. When the Knicks failed to recapture the magic they’d found the season before, that euphoria turned to misery, and much of the blame fell squarely on the All-Star’s shoulders.

And for good reason: Randle’s stellar 2020-21 play took a remarkable nosedive, making his All-NBA performance look more like an aberration than a transformation. His per-game counting stats—including 20.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 5.1 assists—look very respectable on paper, but his shooting and efficiency numbers reveal greater context:

Julius Randle’s Efficiency Drop-Off

Season FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% eFG% FT% PTS PER TS%
Season FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% eFG% FT% PTS PER TS%
2020-21 8.5 18.6 0.456 2.3 5.5 0.411 0.516 0.811 24.1 19.7 0.567
2021-22 7.1 17.3 0.411 1.7 5.4 0.308 0.459 0.756 20.1 15.7 0.509

Randle’s effective field goal percentage (46 percent) ranked in just the third percentile among bigs last season, while his 101.6 points per 100 shot attempts placed him in the sixth percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass. The fact that he also had a tendency to hold the ball for too long in isolation only exacerbated the team’s offensive struggles; despite the poor shooting, he finished seventh in iso frequency among qualifying players across the league, per Synergy Sports. Even worse than his regressive play on the offensive end, though, was his consistent lack of overall intensity and effort on defense. Numbers aside, the simple eye test revealed a suddenly disgruntled player often going through the motions on low-battery mode. Missed boxouts, lazy closeouts, and half-hearted attempts to get back on defense became staples of his game. Then there was the Thumbs-Down Game and expletive-laden press conference to boot, and the artificial Instagram apology that followed. The chip on Randle’s shoulder from the previous season had evolved into something more; after earning the respect of Knicks fans (and securing the bag in the process) following a year of being doubted, the Garden’s choruses of boos and chants in favor of the upstart Obi Toppin gave way to resentment, complacency, and perpetual frustration.

But a new year offers new hope for Randle and the Knicks. Will we see a return to star status, more of what we saw last season, or a new version of Randle altogether?

As important as that question will be for the Knicks this season, this isn’t necessarily Randle’s team anymore. RJ Barrett is a rising young star, and the team just made Jalen Brunson the most expensive player on the roster for the next two years. Even more important than Randle’s efficiency and effort will be his capacity to lead a young Knicks team on the nights when things aren’t going his way. Randle is the team’s true wild card, New York’s ultimate x-factor, as it aspires to return to the playoffs—and how he carries himself this year will have ripple effects throughout the rest of the franchise.

The Knicks have the odds stacked against them this season as the Eastern Conference looks stronger than it has in years, including the Cavaliers, who traded for Donovan Mitchell after New York missed out on its chance to land the All-Star guard. But what this roster misses in Mitchell, it has retained in depth. Along with a sneaky-good pickup in Isaiah Hartenstein, a seven-footer who can stretch the floor and offers insurance for the injury-prone Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks also signed the best starting point guard they’ve had since either slim Raymond Felton or Linsanity. Fresh off of an impressive playoff run with the Dallas Mavericks, Brunson will need to be the key to unlocking the Knicks offense, and that will mean elevating the play of his fellow starting lefties, Randle and Barrett.

In Brunson, Randle has an efficient playmaker who can alleviate the pressure on him to be a primary creator on offense—something that has been an awkward fit at times for the Knicks as they’ve tried to use him as something of a point forward. Randle has led the team in usage every season since his arrival, never falling below a rate of 27 percent, but the team has also had little choice with the likes of Elfrid Payton and Twilight Kemba Walker running the point. Brunson, meanwhile, just helped deliver the Mavs to the Western Conference finals, and showcased his leading potential in 41- and 31-point performances against the Utah Jazz in the first round when Luka Doncic was sidelined with a calf injury. He now fills a longstanding positional need for the Knicks as he gains the opportunity to play with the ball in his hands more than ever.

And Randle, for one, has had nothing but praise for the guard’s seamless transition onto the team following a successful 3-1 preseason run. “In my personal time in this league, it’s probably about as easy as a fit—at least from the point guard position—I’ve seen,” Randle said last week.

As for Barrett, the no. 3 pick in the 2019 draft is the future of the franchise; his continued development will forecast just how high the Knicks’ ceiling will be in the years to come. Barrett enters his fourth NBA season with a freshly-inked four-year contract extension worth up to $120 million through 2027. The deal all but ended trade talks with the Jazz regarding Mitchell, but shows that this current Knicks front office is committed to staying patient and rebuilding through the draft—a banner-worthy achievement. (As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said at the time of the extension, Barrett becomes the first Knicks first-round pick to sign a second multiyear deal with the team since Charlie Ward in 1999. Barrett wasn’t even born yet in 1999.)

Barrett got off to a slow offensive start in his third season, putting up only 15 points on 40 percent shooting from the field and 32.5 percent from deep from opening night through the end of 2021. But thanks in large part to a shift in Barrett’s aggressiveness attacking the rim, in which he doubled his drives per game from January to the end of the season (8.2 to 16), that production increased to 23.6 points (41.2 FG%, 35.2 3PT%) over the same time span. Barrett has grown into an elite slasher, but like Randle, he needs to find a way to be more efficient, and finish more consistently at the rim and at the free throw line. (Barrett was in the 94th percentile in shooting fouled percentage among wings last year, but he only hit 71.4 percent of his free throws.) If neither Barrett nor Randle can improve their perimeter shooting this year, it’ll remain difficult for the Knicks to score with another non-shooter in Robinson playing alongside them, and even Brunson, who’s never averaged more than 3.2 attempts from deep over a season. It remains as big of a question as ever if Barrett and Randle can coexist, and that answer may determine Randle’s future with this franchise.

At the Knicks’ Content Day in late September, Derrick Rose—looking slimmed down and rejuvenated—sat in front of the assembled media in Westchester and spoke about what his team needed to focus on moving forward. “What this year is all about is accountability,” Rose said. “Like being able to not get in your feelings, or taking it personal when somebody’s coming over and giving you constructive criticism. And as a man and as a professional, you’re supposed to understand that.”

Rose didn’t mention anyone by name, of course, but it sure sounded like his message was directed at Randle—and it’s hard to think of anyone else, especially after Randle literally materialized in the press room to interrupt Rose in the middle of his answer, as if Rose’s words had summoned him.

To Randle’s credit, the 27-year-old veteran has looked rejuvenated himself, in the preseason and during media availability. Most importantly, he’s shown a willingness to embrace a more complementary role. Over four preseason games, he finished fourth in both usage (21.4 percent) and total field goal attempts, behind Immanuel Quickley, Barrett, and Brunson. He also often kept the offense flowing instead of pounding the ball in isolation more often than not, making quicker, unselfish decisions to finish with a team-best assist-to-turnover ratio (17-to-3). “I’ve just bought into what Coach is doing, how he’s trying to play,” Randle said last Wednesday, following the Knicks’ sole preseason loss to the Pacers. “I’m just trying to be a leader and establish pace of play, unselfishness for our team, because I feel like we’re at our best when we play like that. … It kind of happens naturally. If the shot is there, take it. [If not], drive the ball, try to get to the rim. If it’s not there, we got shooters everywhere.”

“[Randle’s] been really moving the ball, he really got us going today,” Barrett added. “He got me a couple of easy ones. He’s been playing really well. … Try to dribble less, move the ball more, that’s really what it is. Move the ball, it’s harder to defend.”

The sample size may be small, and it may be the preseason, but the signs have all been encouraging for Randle in this new complementary role on offense. Pace of play has been a major talking point among players and coaches ahead of the season after the team finished 29th last year, averaging 96.4 possessions per game. Randle’s willingness to keep his touch time low and sacrifice some looks in isolation will be a key component to that, but he also needs to take advantage of his speed and strength in transition. Possessions like this one from the Knicks’ first matchup against the Pacers need to be having Randle feel like Thor discovering coffee for the first time:

No matter how Randle performs when the real games begin on Wednesday night against the Grizzlies, it will be especially important for the fate of one player in particular: Obi Toppin. The 24-year-old power forward from Dayton is entering his third season in the league, and the biggest hindrance to his development to this point has been his inability to find consistent playing time. Randle’s presence in the rotation may ultimately be the reason for that, but it’s also a direct result of Thibodeau’s coaching style and decision making.

Thibs is a good coach to have around to help establish a winning culture—it’s hard to argue with the results of his first season helming the team, which culminated in his second Coach of the Year award. But the guy is also a predictable creature of habit, one who has always been known for running his players into the ground due to some combination of his steadfast loyalty to those whom he trusts and his disinterest in making significant lineup adjustments. Even as Randle struggled to find his shot all season and failed to play with consistent effort, Thibodeau never went as far as to bench the disgruntled star.

It took until the last 10 games of the regular season for Toppin to get extended looks in the starting lineup, and much of those happened only after Randle was shut down and the Knicks were already eliminated from playoff contention. Toppin shined in a larger role, putting together an impressive statline: 20 points (57.7 FG%, 44.8 3PT%), 5.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in 30 minutes per game across seven starts.

Toppin picked up right where he left off this preseason, and the Knicks’ win over the Pacers in early October showcased all the upsides of Toppin’s game and potential. His hustle on defense against Indiana’s disjointed offense led to a number of transition opportunities for him, where he thrives:

Toppin finished with 24 points (including four 3s), two blocks, and a steal in just 20 minutes of action, earning himself “Obi” chants from the Garden crowd—a familiar refrain we heard often last season. In the second matchup against the Pacers last Wednesday, Toppin’s first defensive possession of the game ended with him tipping a pass for a steal, leading to a lob from Barrett for an alley-oop:

Of course, Toppin is an easy fan favorite; the league’s reigning Slam Dunk champ is a walking highlight reel who brings energy off the bench every single night. But until Toppin can prove that he can consistently knock down 3s—he’s only hit 30.7 percent from deep over two seasons—and defend in the post against larger players, it’s hard to argue that he should be starting on a team with playoff ambitions. In order to get that proof, though, Thibodeau needs to be willing to award Toppin his hard-earned minutes—even if it means reducing Randle’s load or giving more looks in a small-ball lineup with Randle at the center position. (Given how much Thibs loves to play big, let’s not hold our breath.)

Randle will be the through line for a number of the team’s story lines this year, with the most important one being whether he can adapt to a new situation and hierarchy. He might not be the best player on the roster, or even the second, and that might not matter depending on what type of role he’s willing to embrace. But “Julius Randle” is still the name that will be called last when the starting lineup of the 2022-23 Knicks is announced ahead of the first home game at Madison Square Garden on Friday. The team is still his to lead—for now, at least.