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NYK101 with The Professor: Is D’Angelo Russell a warning for the Knicks & Julius Randle?

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New York Knicks v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Hello, loves. Today’s NYK101 centers on the future. Maybe more than one future.

Statement: Appreciate your position, plan your promotion.

Surely you’re familiar with the story of the former lefty Laker lottery pick who put up decent numbers on the Left Coast, but nothing spectacular. How they hit their stride only after arriving in NYC. How they were named an All-Star and led their team to the playoffs after a years-long absence. No, I’m not talking Julius Randle. Not yet, anyway.

D’Angelo Russell was the #2 pick in the 2015 draft. In two seasons as a Laker he scored a little over 14 a game on 41% shooting from the field and 35% from deep. Despite playing 90% of his minutes as a point guard, he averaged just four assists a game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.5-to-1. Los Angeles sent him to Brooklyn in the deal that brought back Brook Lopez and the draft rights to Kyle Kuzma. The borough was good for Russell: by year two at Barclays his field goal attempts and percentage were up, he made a league-average of his 3s on about eight attempts a night, and his assist percentage nearly doubled while his turnovers fell. The Nets had a 22-year-old All-Star on their hands. Until they didn’t.

10 weeks after Brooklyn was eliminated 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs by Philadelphia, Russell was traded back to the West Coast, this time northern California in the deal that brought Charmin Durant to the Nets and while netting Russell a $117M contract. There is probably no conceivable circumstance in which any team doesn’t happily exchange DLo for KD. But Russell’s postseason play may have made Brooklyn’s decision to move on easier: he shot just 36% from the field and 32% from deep, with nearly as many turnovers (14) as assists (18). The regular season is not the same ecosystem as the playoffs. Nearly half of games 1-82 come against lottery teams; in non-Covid seasons, nobody plays consecutive games vs. the same team in the same city. In the playoffs two teams can spend as many as two weeks playing one another.

Russell played all of 33 games for Golden State before the Warriors traded him to Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins and a 1st-round pick that’s top-three protected this season and unprotected if it carries into next. He’s missed 26 games this season after arthroscopic knee surgery; since arriving in Minnesota 14 months ago, he and the Wolves’ other nine-figure building block, Karl-Anthony Towns, have played a total of seven games together, including two this week after Russell resurrected.

Randle was the #7 pick in the draft the year before Russell. In four seasons as a Laker he scored 17 a game on 49% shooting, along with nine rebounds and nearly as many turnovers as assists. Los Angeles let him sign as a free agent with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bayou was good for Randle: he scored a career-high 21.4 points on 52% shooting while his 3-point accuracy leapt from 26% as a Laker to 35%. The Pelicans had a 24-year-old third banana to pair with fellow twentysomething 20+ point scorers Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Until they didn’t.

Randle declined his second-year option for $9M and entered free agency, where the Knicks signed him to two years and a guaranteed $37M, with the option to buy him out after that for $4M or pick up year three for just under $20M. This year Randle’s on pace to be the first Knick ever to lead the team in points, rebounds and assists, setting career highs in each category. New York has a 26-year-old All-Star whose individual growth has been as big a reason as any for the team’s collective growth.

Question: What does this have to do with the Knicks?

How different is Randle’s case than Russell’s? Are there any similarities worth thinking about? How do the Knicks decide how far they should be willing to go to keep him in New York?

Here’s one important difference: while Randle will never win Defensive Player of the Year, he is a waaaaay better player on that end than Russell. I’ll spare your rods and cones the visual confirmation and stick to statistics: Russell has had a worse defensive rating than offensive rating every year of his career. The only time he had a positive +/- was his All-Star season in Brooklyn, and even then the Nets were only a +0.1 with him on the court. That year — far and away Russell’s best to date — he earned five win shares.

Meanwhile, Randle’s offensive rating has been higher than his defensive rating three of the past four years, which perhaps not coincidentally are the years he hasn’t played for a team that’s lost or been on pace to lost 56+ games. The Knicks are +1.7 with him on the court this year versus -1.5 without him. He’s earned 5.5 win shares with 20 games left, putting him pace for nearly 8 this season. And he’s done all that with a lower usage rate than Russell put up in his best season.

This year’s Knicks are far and away the best team Randle has played on as a pro. The Lakers lost 61 games his rookie year, when he broke his leg in his first game and missed the rest of the season. The next year they lost 65, then 56, then peaked at 35-47 before letting him leave for New Orleans, who were 33-49 his one year there. Last year the Knicks were 21-45, a 26-win pace. His coaches those years were Byron Scott, Luke Walton, Alvin Gentry, David Fizdale and Mike Miller. Tom Thibodeau may never be confused for Red Holzman or Pat Riley, but compared to that quintet he’s James Naismith.

Russell also played for Scott and Walton, then spent two years in Brooklyn with Kenny Atkinson, a couple months in Oakland with Steve Kerr, then Ryan Saunders and now Chris Finch in Minnesota. The Warriors were no longer “the Warriors” during Russell’s brief tenure: Klay Thompson was out injured, Steph Curry missed all but five games and Draymond Green was out for a third of the season. The Timberwolves were 15-35 when he arrived; this year they’re 6-16 when he plays. Far and away the best team Russell ever played with were the 42-40 2019 Nets. The point of these histories? You can’t know how much of a ceiling-raiser your best players are until you access a higher class of edifice.

Suggestion: One way or another, Randle is worth keeping around for a while.

Russell is not good enough to be the best- or second-best player on a title contender, but he was good enough to help the Nets grow from 28 wins to a playoff spot and enough credibility to attract players who are top-shelf or secondary superstars. I doubt any Nets fans would rather have him than Kyrie Irving. He’ll never have his number retired at Barclays; if the Nets do win a title this year or next, he’s not getting a ring. But there is value in the lowercase-p prophets who lay the groundwork for the capital-p ones to lead the people to the promised land.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself or this very early and meaningful step in what I hope is a years-long process. I love watching Randle’s development and wouldn’t be surprised to see him add stepback and side-step 3s to his game. His baseline fadeaways are Ewing-esque. He came to New York as a big-money import, disappointed his first year, stuck with the challenge and came back to win the people over. Not many players in any sport pull that off. I would love to see the Knicks extend him, bring in other All-Stars and see how far they can go.

That still leaves the question of what Randle is ultimately worth. At his current salary of $18M he’s a steal. If that jumps up to, say, $33M per, what then? Adding a layer of complexity, not only do the Knicks need to offer him enough to retain his services, they need to not overpay him to where he becomes un-tradeable should a deal for a star come their way. And stars become available all the time, many of them seemingly surprisingly: Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Paul George and Jimmy Butler were going to be Spurs, Rockets, Pacers/Thunder and Timberwolves/76ers for a long time. Until they weren’t.

Maybe Randle continues to grow. Maybe he becomes the primary player on a championship-level team, or a secondary one. Maybe the Knicks are still two years away from being two years away, and Randle the asset does more toward that end than he ever could as a centerpiece. Sometimes leveling up is as much about who gets you there as who gets you into position to get the guy who gets you there. The team across town knows that. Maybe the Knicks are learning that lesson, too.