When Julius Randle signed with the Knicks in the summer of 2019, he knew the contract carried expectations with it. He had to live up to the money they were paying him to be a star. And he had to live up to what he wasn’t: one of the established superstars whom the Knicks had hoped to sign but had not even given them an audience.
What he stepped into was a situation that could have wrecked him.
The team was a disaster, with his coach getting fired after 22 games and the team president following him out the door a few months later. He lost his grandmother. Then he lost his mentor, Kobe Bryant. And the season wore on before finally coming to an abrupt ending; the pandemic halted the regular season, which would not resume for the Knicks.
Rather than retreat, Randle regrouped. He went home to Texas, set up a workout plan and worked — on his body, on his game, on his mind. And when he arrived in camp to meet a new head coach in Tom Thibodeau who demanded work and accountability, Randle already was a step ahead.
"I definitely think I’ve grown as a leader," Randle said. "I definitely think I’m a person on our team that leads by example with how I approach how I work. I care about my teammates. I definitely think it’s something that guys look to me every night to bring my game a certain way. I try to the best of my ability to do that.
"Absolutely I embrace it. I work for it. I challenge myself and push myself to be able to do it on a nightly basis. I know I still have a long way to go and I can get a lot better."
He has played in all 37 games and leads the NBA in total minutes. He has put up career bests in points per game (23.2), rebounds (11.1) and assists (5.5). After shooting 27.7% from outside the arc last season, he has connected on 40.8% of his three-pointers this season. He even ranks third in the NBA in defensive win-shares.
In a story he told in The Players Tribune, Randle detailed how he was home playing ball with his 4-year-old son Kyden last season, gave him a little bump and saw his son give him what he called "the look" — begging the ref (his mom in this case) for a call. He knew where his son had gotten that from, realizing what he looked like as he did it nightly. So he tried to change.
It wasn’t just his demeanor on the court, either. Last season, with the crowd of New York media around, he spoke in short, reluctant answers. At least they seemed reluctant; it was hard to tell because he would answer in whispers that resisted the best recorders.
He arrived this season changed in that aspect, too, opening up with expansive answers, speaking not just for himself but for the team.
"It’s amazing. He’s turned into an All-NBA player," Thibodeau said. "He’s been a terrific leader. Until you’re around someone every day — our workouts in the summer. I saw that he was special. I’m very close with the guys who coached him in New Orleans. They said you’re going to love him when you coach him. That holds true after being around him, the way he’s changed his game.
"My big concern going into the season was the shooting, the three-point shooting, and he was so diligent with his work and he’s become a terrific three-point shooter. He’s got an all-around game . . . His leadership, too; he’s a great worker and sets a great example for the team. He’s been terrific and the impact on winning has been huge. So it’s not his individual statistics. It’s what he’s doing for the team. And that becomes contagious."
Elfrid Payton, who played with Randle with the Pelicans before joining up in New York, said, "Julius puts in a lot of work, a lot of things that people don’t see. He’s constantly working on his game on and off the court, so seeing it all come together has been really special. He deserves everything that’s coming his way. He deserves every bit of it. It’s been a pleasure to watch."
Maybe a few years from now, it won’t be the first time Randle is an All-Star and he will be like some other players, wondering if the break might be better spent on a beach. But for now, with all that has gone around the NBA’s efforts to soldier through the season, Randle never hesitated. He even joined in the Skills Competition, facing off against the likes of Chris Paul and Luka Doncic.
"I feel great," Randle said. "Everything, as far as training, what I’ve done throughout the season to take care of my body, has prepared me for game after game, what I’m able to do out there. I’ll go to Atlanta, enjoy the time with the players, enjoy the time with my family and come back here and get ready. It’s not even that long of a break, to be honest with you, so I’ll be in season mode, getting ready."