While Julius Randle was working on the court at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, methodically leading the Knicks to a 114-104 dismantling of the Detroit Pistons to end the first half of the regular season, Kevin Durant was selecting him for Team Durant in Sunday’s All-Star Game.
Randle put together another performance that displayed his All-Star credentials, eliciting chants of "M-V-P" from the crowd as he scored 27 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and handed out seven assists. And with Durant and LeBron James praising Randle’s play before a national audience, it provided another hint of what the Knicks have in the first-time All-Star — and what the future may hold.
RJ Barrett had 21 points and Elfrid Payton 20 for the Knicks, who enter the break in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a much-better-than-expected 19-18 record.
There was a time, just over a year ago, when the Knicks were in the process of dismantling the work of past regimes and willing to convert as many holdovers as possible into future assets. They traded Marcus Morris, who had been the steadiest contributor, for a first-round pick. There was little secret that for the right price, Randle could be had, too.
Randle stayed, though, and if the thought was that the Knicks would test his trade value again this season, there has been little doubt that the 26-year-old All-Star has shifted the thinking.
Randle arrived in training camp in better shape and with sharper skills along with a clear mind, becoming the embodiment of coach Tom Thibodeau on the court. He entered Thursday night averaging 23.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, all career highs.
And now, as he prepares to depart for his first appearance as an NBA All-Star, Randle said he would like to make this stop a long-term investment.
He has a lightly guaranteed $19.8 million contract for next season, as the previous management team gave him a $4 million buyout on the deal. But this offseason he will be eligible to sign a four-year contract extension, a talk the Knicks likely will have with him.
"Yeah, it’s always a thought," Randle said. "When I came here almost two years ago, that was the plan. I wanted to be here long term. I want to be a Knick. So my thoughts never changed. I would definitely love to be here long term. When we get to that part, sit down and talk, whatever. But right now I’m more focused on the team, getting a win tonight and the team getting where we’re going."
Under the collective bargaining agreement, Randle is eligible for a four-year, $106 million extension that would start at $24 million in 2022-23. If he maintains his level of production, that would be a bargain.
More important, as the Knicks have learned, bringing in a star is not easy, even with the team loaded with salary-cap space.
"Like I said, we’ll see when we get to that time," Randle said. "But right now, like I said, I’m really just focused on what we have to do as a team. That’s so far ahead in the future. When that time presents itself, I’ll be ready. We’ll talk or whatever, but I’m really just focused on this team, first off getting a win tonight going into the All-Star break, getting my body right so I’m healthy, staying on top of what I have to, starting off the second half of the season strong. That’s where my focus is right now."
Randle was part of the Knicks’ Plan B free-agent haul in the summer of 2019 when, after trading away Kristaps Porzingis, they believed they could lure multiple stars. Instead, Randle was the biggest prize of a huge cast of characters.
After again failing to get one of the top free agents this past offseason, the Knicks have seen many of the top free-agent targets who could have been on the market this coming offseason opt to sign extensions to remain with their current teams.
Randle insists that the trade talk and uncertainty never entered his mind.
"No. I never worry about those type of things," he said. "I never really got the feeling I was going anywhere, honestly. As a basketball player, we focus on the craft. You focus on what you can control and everything else takes care of itself. But I never really was worried about leaving, no."