LAS VEGAS — He didn’t arrive with the hype of the stars who packed the front rows at Thomas and Mack Center, nor did he get the attention afforded to the rookies who were making their debuts in the arena Friday night.
But Julius Randle came, too, strolling into the arena shortly before the start of the Knicks’ Summer League game after accepting congratulations and greeting Knicks executives and Garden chairman James Dolan.
And if his signing to a three-year, $63 million deal felt like a letdown after all the talk of the top stars coming, Randle understands — and hopes to change hearts and minds.
“I understand it,” he said, standing in a tunnel just off the court at halftime of the game. “I’m not going to get upset. That fan base is starving to be competitive every night, for guys who are going to compete every night to win. For me, it’s that. That’s what it is. I’m going to work my butt off to get to that point, absolutely.”
Randle was the highest-priced piece of the Knicks’ free-agent shopping that brought six new faces on board. Though he had the best season of his career with the New Orleans Pelicans, averaging 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds, it still is a long way down from the max-salary stars the Knicks were targeting.
Even his arrival in Vegas was overshadowed by Kawhi Leonard’s decision to join the Clippers — shifting the balance of power in the league — and Friday’s earthquake. Still, he said his interests and the Knicks’ matched up beyond his high price tag.
“I had a lot of options,” Randle said. “I just felt like this opportunity for me was the greatest opportunity. I felt like there’s no fan base, no organization that’s starving and hungry to win more than the Knicks in the NBA. And I don’t think there’s a better place in the NBA to win than with the Knicks in New York. So for me, it was a no-brainer. And like I said, every day I wake up, I pinch myself. I’m excited.
“[Their pitch was] just how they wanted to use me, me being the leader on this team, a lead guy, and the young core that we already have. And me and [coach David Fizdale], we really thought alike. He said one of the things when he took this job, there’s no better place to win than New York. It feels like this is the best place in the NBA to win. And I felt the same thing. When he asked me what I wanted out of this, I said the exact same thing. So we thought alike.
“And the opportunity for myself as a player to grow I’m excited about,” he added. “We’ve got a lot of good guys on this team. I can go down the list of all the guys who I’m excited to play with, the young guys. I’ve been in the situation a couple years ago that is very similar to what they’re in, trying to establish themselves in the league. But I like what I see out there. Those guys are playing great, playing together. I’m excited.”
As he spoke, he had seen one half of a game from the young core — rookie RJ Barrett, along with second-year players Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier — as they built a lead and faded against the Pelicans. The team he is joining is the remnants of a 17-65 squad, and the five other free agents who are joining him — Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington — aren’t exactly the sort of super-team being put together around the NBA.
But he hopes that a throwback in style and effort can make the team competitive again.
“We got dogs, man,” Randle said. “We got dudes who don’t back down, who have killer mentalities. And that’s what we need. Get back to the old school, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, all those guys — toughness, the fight, bring it every night. So we’re excited about that. And that’s the identity of our team. We’re not backing down from nobody.”