TORONTO — Friday was a strange anniversary, a year to the day since Julius Randle infamously flashed a thumbs-down gesture to the Madison Square Garden crowd. That was a low point in a frustrating and troubling season for a player who had been an All-Star, the NBA’s Most Improved Player and a second-team All-NBA selection a season earlier.
Lost in the NBA-fined actions that day, which included a profane explanation of the message for the home fans, was that Randle actually played with a fire that day. And this season, minus the dysfunction, Randle is playing with a fire that again has him in consideration for a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
But when the first round of fan voting was released Thursday, Randle was nowhere to be found among the top 10 front-court players, behind the likes of the Nets’ Nic Claxton, Washington’s Kyle Kuzma and Orlando rookie Paolo Banchero. Jalen Brunson also was absent from the list along with every other Knicks player other than little-used Derrick Rose, who was ninth among guards.
“To me, the All-Star Game is for the fans,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I have no problem with that. There’s a number of guys that are deserving and will get consideration. I think the tough part about All-Star Games is because the fans will have impact on the starters, and rightly so, there’s a limited number of spots after that. There are more players that are deserving that are having big years.
“Hopefully our players will get some consideration. Certainly Julius, Jalen and RJ [Barrett]. I know when the coaches vote, you’re looking at what’s the impact. What ends up happening, the players at the end, it’s tough to decide. You don’t want to be the deciding vote that keeps someone out that’s deserving. So usually what you go to is what’s the impact been on winning. I think that’s usually the tiebreaker for most coaches. It’s the unfortunate part because there are a number of guys that are having big years. Hopefully our guys will get consideration.”
Randle was averaging 24.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, both team highs, entering Friday’s game against Toronto. He put up huge numbers in December, averaging 28.3 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 15 games. He shot 36.8% from three-point range on 9.1 attempts per game and also averaged 8.6 free throws attempted.
“The way he’s playing is just unheard of,” Brunson said. “He’s playing with confidence and he’s having fun. So it’s really awesome to see how he’s been able to kind of bounce back. I think he still has a lot more to prove, not just to everyone else but to himself because he has a whole ’nother level he can reach.”
“You work hard to put yourself in a position to do that,” Randle said earlier this week. “So it would be amazing. I love it. Not necessarily for me, it’s great. But I love it to experience it with my family, with both of my sons. My wife. Because they’re the ones who make the true sacrifice of letting me dedicate myself to the game . . . Summers and night in, night out . . . But for me, whatever the team needs, honestly.”
Brunson, who plays the game like a coach on the floor, may have the best shot in the voting by coaches for the reserves. He entered Friday’s game averaging 20.8 points and 6.5 assists — All-Star-worthy numbers, perhaps, but not the eye-opening numbers that some players are posting this season.
“It’d definitely be nice,” Brunson said. “Just control what I can control. That’s really it . . . I know that every coach that I’ve had, we’ve had a great relationship. I appreciate them. They appreciate me. From that aspect, yes, but I can’t control what other people think or their opinions. I just focus on how I can help my team win games.”