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New Knicks Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier lighten offensive load on Julius Randle

Knicks guard Kemba Walker (8) celebrates with forward

Knicks guard Kemba Walker (8) celebrates with forward Julius Randle (30) against the Indiana Pacers during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Credit: AP/Adam Hunger

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — It was just one minute into the first preseason game Tuesday night for the Knicks and R.J. Barrett inbounded the ball quickly after a made basket by the Indiana Pacers, sending the ball to Kemba Walker who raced it up the right side. And Julius Randle moved calmly to the left corner where he waited.

Walker drew defenders to him and kicked the ball out to Randle, who may have seen more open space in front of him than he did at any time last season, and maybe that’s why he air-balled the three-point attempt. While the result on that first attempt went awry, not much else did as the Knicks offense operated at a high level in this first test.

"I saw that play coming a long time before it happened," Randle said. "I think that’s just the thing with [Walker], you trust that he’s going to make the right play and he did. [Did it feel] weird? No, because we had practiced some and I understand the type of player he is, that he’s going to make the right play. But it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to."

Randle would finish with a team-high 20 points and the Knicks piled up 101 points through the first three quarters before the starters got the rest of the night off. But more than the numbers it was the first hint that the job for Randle offensively might be much easier this season with Walker and Evan Fournier added to the starting lineup.

While Randle’s turnovers per game last season were a career-high 3.4 per game — and a troubling 4.6 in the playoffs — he also was asked to do more than he ever needed to before. His usage rate of 28.5% was 26th in the NBA among players who played at least half of the games on the schedule and he led the league in minutes played per game.

It was clear in the five-game playoff beatdown at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks that Randle needed help offensively, even if he maintains the sort of production he put up last season in earning second-team All-NBA honors. Enter Walker and Fournier, who each can create shots for themselves and opportunities for others, allowing Randle to have plays like that early one Tuesday when he is the recipient with the open look.

"They fit well because they’re interchangeable," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Kemba can play with the ball, without the ball. Julius can play with it, without it. Evan can do the same. RJ [Barrett] can do the same.

"So, I think if we play with movement and we share the ball, make the right rim reads — the thing I like about all four of those guys are terrific downhill. So, if we get downhill and make the right rim reads, then the game becomes easy for everyone. Just make quick decisions. And I thought we did that.

"And again, you’re looking at, are we getting the shots that we want to get? And I think right now, we’re still getting a feel for each other, but attacking the rim, making the rim reads, spacing the floor correctly, moving without the ball, getting some easy buckets with cuts and transition. I think that we have guys that can play off the ball that move well without it, so when we do that, sometimes you’re giving yourself up but you’re creating a wide-open shot for someone. When you play that way, the game is easy."

Notes & quotes: Thibodeau said that Nerlens Noel participated in some of practice after sitting out Tuesday’s game. He added that Mitchell Robinson is making progress, taking some contact although not in team practice sessions. Asked if he thought Robinson could get in a preseason game, he said, "If he can, great, and if he can’t, that’s fine, too. When he’s ready to go, he’ll go. His health is the priority. He’s been cleared and that part is very encouraging and now it’s the conditioning aspect of it to prepare him to play in an NBA game."

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