In the hopeful days before free agency began when teams -- including the Knicks -- dreamed of changing their fortunes with star power leading them out of the wilderness, every NBA executive could recite the names on the wish lists.
Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson would head up any list. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris were attractive pieces. Kris Middleton and Kristaps Porzingis could be building blocks.
You would have to scroll far down the list to find Julius Randle. He has never been an All-Star or an All-NBA player. He’s never been on a winning team and has never seen the court in a postseason game.
But even if few would have predicted it in June, Randle will be counted on to be the star for the Knicks when the season begins this week.
“I just feel like the situation and opportunity, everything I’ve been through in the past, all the work I’ve put in the past has prepared me for this opportunity now,” Randle said. “So it’s just a goal of mine. Eventually, you feel like you have an opportunity. I feel like I do.”
Randle isn’t boasting. He is soft-spoken, almost inaudible at times, and humble. But he was one of just eight players to average at least 21 points and 8.5 rebounds last season and was the only one not named an All-Star.
Asked if he thought Randle could be an All-Star this season, Knicks coach David Fizdale said, “Absolutely. I think a lot has got to go right, obviously. We’ve got to play good basketball. We’ve got to understand our roles. We’ve got to understand how to help him. But with the way that he approaches the game and his work ethic and his selflessness, I think he'll have a chance.”
He certainly should be well-equipped to handle the turmoil that has enveloped this franchise for two decades now. After breaking his leg in his first NBA game and sitting out the remainder of his rookie season, he returned healthy in 2016-17 and on a Lakers team dominated by Kobe Bryant's farewell tour. Randle endured a 17-65 season, the same record the Knicks put up last year. The next season with Bryant gone, he started more games than anyone, but the Lakers were also-rans again, winning just 26 games. Then with the arrival of Lonzo Ball and a focus on the new young players, he came off the bench for the first 33 games and after a 35-win season was set loose after the 2017-18 season.
He signed a one-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans and found an even more chaotic situation with star Anthony Davis openly lobbying for an exit. While he may not have ever been an All-Star, the Knicks paid him to be one -- offering up a three-year, $63 million deal -- making him the only one of their seven free-agent acquisitions with a fully guaranteed deal beyond this season.
If his voice isn’t booming, he has set an example for the young team, often the last player on the floor at practice, working long after others are headed for their cars. That work ethic is visible in the changes in his game, too. Last season, he not only piled up points and rebounds, but became a threat from beyond the arc, attempting 2.7 per game (three times his next highest per game season previously) and connecting on 34.4 percent.
Fizdale has also spoken about using him as a point forward, a role he was utilized at times in Los Angeles while playing for Luke Walton.
Randle would like the recognition that comes with an All-Star appearance, but he knows that to do that, he would have to lead the Knicks to something that seems a longer shot -- a playoff berth.
"Winning does that, obviously,” he said. “It's a situation where we're building from the ground up and I like that. I don't want to just walk into a situation that was ready made. I enjoy the adversity. I embrace it. I embrace the challenge. For me, this is fun. This is my comfort zone; being uncomfortable.
“I'm not going to sit here and talk about it every day, but it's extremely important. That’s what you work hard for. You talk about opportunity, this is my opportunity to be a real leader. So I just want to make sure everybody is connected and we get better every day. I like our team compared to a lot of other teams. We do what we need to do every day to get better, that mental focus, lock in, stay connected. I like our team.”