The Knicks were widely expected to get laughed all the way down to the bottom of the standings this season while Julius Randle inefficiently produced flashy statistics but failed to suitably serve as a leader for his young teammates. Alas. Tell God your plans and such.
Nay, what was forewarned has not come to pass. Instead, Randle has flourished under new head coach Tom Thibodeau, playing like a man with a plan instead of a chap who looks like crap. The Knicks are 5-4 and technically tied for 5th in the East. They’re a few days removed from an impressive victory over the Utah Jazz in which Randle posted a ridiculous 30 points, 16 rebounds and 7 assists, and even in Friday night’s ghastly loss to the Thunder, in which Randle didn’t play very well overall, he nearly notched a triple double with 18 points, 12 rebounds and 7 dimes.
He’s been so good that the NBA almost anointed him with an official honor recently.
Golden State’s Steph Curry (West) and Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris (East) are conference players of the week, NBA says. NYK’s Julius Randle was among the nominees in the East, per the league.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) January 4, 2021
Randle’s counting stats are simply magnificent thus far. Following Friday’s loss to Oklahoma City, through nine games he’s averaged 22.6 points, 12 rebounds and 7.3 assists per contest, all of which would be career highs. He’s 23rd in the NBA in points, ahead of Donovan Mitchell, Anthony Davis and Devin Booker. He’s 9th in assists, ahead of Ben Simmons, Damian Lillard and Steph Curry. He’s 4th in rebounds, leading the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.
Meanwhile, it’s clear Randle has made strides to be more of a leader this season, having taken to heart some of the criticism heaped upon him last year, including by teammates. Much of this likely has to do with the coaching of Tom Thibodeau, who expects the best out of his players and, unlike some previous Knicks coaches, rarely gets caught smiling on camera unless it’s an appropriate time to display happiness.
It’s not just counting stats, either. Randle’s advanced statistics similarly show a player possessed. For one example, he’s leading the Knicks in assist percentage at 31.7%, which is a stat that estimates the percentage of teammate field goals a given player assisted on while he was on the court. Another example is his improvement on isolation plays. Randle is scoring about 47% of the time when isolated this season, according to the NBA. Last year, he scored just 36% of the time on isolations.
Meanwhile, he’s putting up his numbers with a usage rate of 27.5%, which is slightly higher than last year’s usage rate and would represent the highest usage rate of his career. Thus, Randle is being given more offensive responsibility than ever before, and it’s led to the best start to a season for the Knicks since 2013-13.
Sam Quinn, writing for CBS Sports, did a fabulous job outlining some of the things Randle is doing in a story framed around the idea that he should receive consideration for Most improved Player this year.
Julius Randle is doing a lot of things well right now, but his passing has stood out.— Samuel H. Quinn (@SamQuinnCBS) January 5, 2021
I looked at his new approach, some of the absurd numbers it has generated, and whether it suggests that we should reconsider what Most Improved Player really means.https://t.co/4F2B3YKRJT
Through seven games, Randle is making more passes per game than Ben Simmons and more passes per minute than Stephen Curry. He is creating more points per game off his assists than LeBron James and Luka Doncic. He is averaging more assists per game than Nikola Jokic ever has over a full season. And he’s doing all of this while sharing the court with a pass-first point guard in Elfrid Payton and a high-volume wing scorer in Barrett.
For all of Randle’s offensive prowess, he’s still not a particularly incredible defender. But he’s played pretty well on that side of the ball this year, and as a team the Knicks currently rank fifth for defensive rating. Last year, New York finished 23rd in the league.
There are, of course, questions. Is Randle’s production sustainable? Does the fact that he’s averaging a career high 4.6 turnovers per game negate some of the positives? Can Thibs continue to motivate Randle, or will his effects eventually become diminished, resulting in Randle returning to his previous form? Is Thibs playing him too many minutes and he’s going to break down one of these days? Should Leon Rose be looking to capitalize on his early season accomplishments by flipping Randle in a trade?
Luckily, we just get to watch the basketball, while Rose and his fellow front office cohorts are the ones who have to actually make the tough decisions. The truth is that if Randle can keep all of this up, he’ll be an All-Star this season. Maybe the Knicks will be convinced that he’s more than a stop-gap guy to help make sure the team can score points while they lose lots of games. Perhaps he’s a key piece in this rebuild.