Julius Randle had carried the Knicks for much of the night Wednesday, just as he had carried the Knicks through much of the first seven games. But as he stood with the ball in his hands late in the game, wide open just outside the three-point line, he passed on the chance to play hero.
With the Knicks up three points and 3:10 remaining, Randle instead waited for Austin Rivers, who had passed him the ball, to circle behind him. He handed it off and set a screen, clearing space for Rivers to hit a three-pointer in the midst of a stretch in which Rivers scored 14 straight points for the Knicks (5-3).
Randle continued to put up the video-game numbers he’s been recording, contributing 30 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in a 112-100 win over the Utah Jazz, a game in which the Knicks came back from an 18-point second-quarter deficit.
And maybe in that moment he displayed something that the Knicks have been waiting for since signing him 18 months ago — an ability to be the star of the show, but a willingness to share the stage.
With that, as his performance grows to All-Star chatter, the Knicks will have a decision to make.
When the season began, the emphasis on salary-cap flexibility meant that the low-cost buyout of the final year of his contract made Randle either a trade chip or a placeholder. But now? Randle has become the star of the Knicks, maybe an All-Star and maybe a player they can’t afford to let loose now that the free-agent market has faded, with players opting to remain with their current teams.
Randle, 26, in his seventh NBA season, has one year left on his contract that will pay him $19.8 million if the team picks up the option or a buyout of $4 million if it doesn't.
"I think when you look at most players in this league, there’s progression to becoming that type of player," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "They don’t just get there overnight. There’s steps that they have to take along the way. I think he’s done that. I think each year he’s gained experience. That’s probably the most valuable teacher.
"I think you learn through listening. Trial and error is a big part of learning. All the experiences he had from L.A. and New Orleans. And to take all that, and then the pause in the season, it allows you to take all that and reflect on the things that you think can help you and things that you learn over time.
"And probably the biggest thing that he did — he’s in unbelievable shape. And it tells you the importance of being in great shape. And I think to be able to play the minutes he’s playing, he prepared himself to do that. And to be honest with you, to win games late, you have to be in great shape."
From the start of camp, Thibodeau has stressed the conditioning and commitment that Randle made. He leads the NBA in minutes per game at 38.6 and is averaging 23.1 points, 12.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists.
Asked if Randle is reaching All-Star status, Rivers said, "He’s played at that level so far. The biggest surprise for me has been his vision, his willingness to pass and his conditioning. He’s in incredible shape. For him to be doing that, he plays most of the game, he does it on both ends, he’s talking, so he’s been great for us . . . He’s playing at an All-Star level. You can’t deny that. Not at all. So we need him to keep going for sure."
For Randle, the only regret is that he’s doing it in empty arenas.
"It’s unfortunate," he said. "Obviously the NBA is doing a great job of keeping us all safe, but this team is different. We have a great energy, a great confidence about us, and it’s unfortunate our fans can’t experience it. I know the Garden would be rocking. That’s what we all signed up for. Hopefully sooner rather than later, it will happen. For sure, we’re definitely missing our fans."