The Rise of Julius Randle

The Rise of Julius Randle

When was the last time a player in year seven transitioned from a supporting role to potential franchise centerpiece? Here is how the Knicks’ forward elevated his game.

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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Just when you thought praise for Julius Randle couldn’t get any loftier, that the runaway leader for the NBA Most Improved Player Award couldn’t win over any more supporters, enter Charles Oakley. “I think [Randle],” Oakley told SiriusXM Radio this week, “is a better version of Zion Williamson.”

Well … O.K., then.

The Knicks’ nine-game winning streak ended on Monday, against Phoenix. Chris Paul did Chris Paul things, scoring seven points in the final 90 seconds to help the Suns pull out a 118–110 win. Randle pocketed a three to cut the deficit to three late in the fourth quarter, though it was largely a forgettable (18-points on 6–17 shooting) night.

The loss dropped the Knicks to 34–28 on the season.

And maintained them—and Randle—as the NBA’s best story.

Even in defeat, the Knicks are fun. New York coughed up a 15-point first-half lead but rallied to nearly erase a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes. Reggie Bullock, the sharpshooter on a team that is somehow, someway third in the NBA in three-point percentage (38.6%), knocked down four threes. Derrick Rose, continuing one of the league’s most improbable reinventions, scored 22 points off the bench. Immanuel Quickley, the Knicks’ other first-round pick, added 11.

Randle, Monday night notwithstanding, has been brilliant. Entering the game against the Suns, Randle was averaging 27.3 points per game in April—third best in the NBA. He ranks in the top 10 in rebounding and assists this month. He’s had two of his five triple doubles and posted a pair of 40-plus point games, all while continuing to lead the NBA in minutes.

“He’s had an incredible month,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “So he’s going to have a lot of attention that’s going to require a lot of energy. He’s double-teamed on almost every play. But he’s in unbelievable shape. He’s our engine, and I have a lot of confidence in him.”

How do you explain the rise of Randle? When was the last time a player in year seven transitioned from a supporting role to potential franchise centerpiece, from a potential cap casualty to one worthy of a max-level extension? The short answer: work. That covers the spike in three-point shooting. In his first six seasons, Randle cracked 30% from three-point range just once. This season he is at 41.8%. That’s not on a couple of attempts, either—Randle is averaging more than five per game. Randle credits the Knicks’ extended offseason. While most of the NBA descended on Orlando for the NBA restart, Randle was in the gym, alone, working on his jump shot. “He continues to put a lot of work in,” Thibodeau said recently. “He’s in every night shooting. It’s a great example for our guys.”

In Thibodeau, Randle found a kindred spirit. Randle works hard. Thibodeau works harder. On an ESPN podcast, Randle described popping into the Knicks facility late at night, only to see the light burning in Thibodeau’s office. When the Knicks revamped the front office last spring, Randle told them he needed a coach who would hold him accountable. Enter Thibodeau, an NBA drill sergeant. When Randle learned Kenny Payne, his former assistant coach at Kentucky, was considering a jump to the Knicks, Randle pleaded with Payne to come on board. Payne’s presence, Randle says, has played a significant role in his conditioning this season.

Thibodeau’s redemption arc has been equally impressive, if not somewhat predictable. In 2019, Thibodeau’s head coaching career appeared to be in ruins. He was fired from Minnesota after 3 ½ turbulent seasons. NBA types whispered that Thibs would likely need to return to the assistant ranks for his next shot. When Leon Rose, Thibodeau’s former agent, hired Thibodeau in New York, it was lampooned in some circles as a favor to a former client.

Er, about that. Under Thibodeau, the Knicks have become a dominant defensive team. They lead the NBA in opponent points per game, defensive field goal percentage and defensive three-point percentage. They rank in the top five in opponent points in the paint, assists and defensive rating. Thibs convinced Leon Rose to trade for Derrick Rose and bring back Taj Gibson, two trusted ex-Bulls who have made significant impacts in New York. As a front office exec, as he was in Minnesota, Thibodeau is a failure. As an NBA coach, he remains among the elite.

The Knicks will make the playoffs for the first time since 2013. That’s an accomplishment, sure, but more important, there is a foundation in New York. Rose has stabilized the front office for the first time since Donnie Walsh was running the show. Thibodeau is the first coach since Jeff Van Gundy to appear to have a firm grip on the job. The Knicks’ holes are obvious (point guard, more perimeter shooting), but Quickley, RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Obi Toppin headline a solid young core to build around.

With Randle leading it. Knicks fans would probably prefer Zion (sorry, Oak), but Randle has been a rock, missing just one game while absorbing the heavy workload. He has transformed offensively from a seemingly unwilling passer to one of the Knicks’ top playmakers. He has morphed from a questionable team defender to an anchor in one. Randle says he understood the pressures of playing in New York when he signed a three-year, $63 million deal in 2019. But with pressure comes the possibility of rewards. And Randle is reaping them.

What’s going on in Washington?

Speaking of streaks, Washington had an eight-game one of its own snapped on Monday. But can we talk about the Wizards winning eight straight? This was the team that upended its roster weeks before the season, swapping John Wall for Russell Westbrook. A team that lost its starting center, Thomas Bryant, weeks into it. A team that lost six games to COVID-19-related issues in January and lost eight of nine out of the All-Star break. That team is in the hunt for a spot in the play-in tournament.

The Wizards, like the Knicks, are getting it done with defense. Washington has a top-10 defensive rating since Jan. 30, and during the eight-game winning streak have ranked second, inching the Wizards toward the top half of the league in defensive efficiency on the season. Daniel Gafford, an unheralded part of a three-team trade between Boston, Chicago and Washington, has solidified the Wizards’ frontcourt, swatting away 2.2 shots per game in 12 games with the Wiz.

And then there is Westbrook. While Bradley Beal continues to be Washington’s offensive engine, Westbrook is quietly having his most efficient month. His shooting percentage in April (45.6%) is at a season-best. His rebounding numbers (13.1) are, too. In an ugly win over Cleveland on Sunday, it was Westbrook who found open teammates in the fourth quarter and whose bank shot with under a minute to play finished it. The Wizards are likely first-round fodder for a top seed, should they get that far. But that they are even in position to be that is pretty remarkable.

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