Julius Randle was supposed to be a consolation prize.
He was the star no one wanted, the guy the Knicks ended up signing after they whiffed in 2019 free agency. Actually, Randle wasn’t even a star, not even close. Just a decent young player who was willing to sign with the Knicks after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving snubbed them and headed to Brooklyn.
Fast-forward to this season, and not only is Randle a bona fide big-time player, he is the most important superstar in the star-laden New York area.
Randle’s dramatic emergence this year under coach Tom Thibodeau is the single biggest reason the Knicks will open the first round of the playoffs next weekend against Atlanta at Madison Square Garden.
Sure, we all knew that Thibodeau would have the team playing better defense, but who could have predicted that Randle would have this kind of monster year? He is averaging career highs in points (24.1), rebounds (10.2) and assists (6.0).
Randle helped turn what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Knicks — Las Vegas bookmakers projected they would have 22.5 wins — into one of the most exciting Knicks seasons in recent memory. They won 16 of their final 20 games and finished the regular season at 41-31.
"He’s our engine," Thibodeau said before Sunday’s 96-92 win over the Celtics. "He’s had a terrific season."
While the Nets’ roster has two former MVPs in Durant and James Harden and a seven-time All-Star in Irving, none of them comes close to having the impact that Randle has had on his team.
Randle is completely different from the player who frustrated Knicks fans last season by dribbling into traffic and forcing bad shots. So much so that he should be a shoo-in for the league’s Most Improved Player award and deserves at least a cursory mention in the MVP conversation.
It’s not just that Randle has put up big numbers for the Knicks, it’s that he put them up consistently. During a compacted season in which many players missed games because of injuries and COVID-19 protocols, Randle played in 71 of 72 games and averaged a league-high 37.6 minutes per game.
Randle’s most jaw-dropping accomplishment has been the development of his three-point shot. Last season, he really didn’t have one, which meant defenders didn’t have to pay attention to what he was doing on the perimeter.
Consider that in his first six seasons in the league, he averaged 1.5 three-point attempts per game, making only 29.5% of them. This season? He averaged 5.5 attempts a game and made 41.1% of them.
That’s not his only improvement, however. Randle has transformed himself from almost a reluctant passer last season to a skilled playmaker under pressure who sees the floor well. His 6.0 assists per game are double what he averaged last season.
"The most important thing is the impact he’s had on winning," Thibodeau said. "A lot of people can get stats in this league and it doesn’t impact winning. Julius has really impacted winning and he’s been a great example for all our players with his commitment to work, to the team, to unselfishness. That’s what it takes to be unselfish in this league."
Randle, of course, did not come here to be a consolation prize. While big names may not have wanted to step into the Knicks’ mess, he seemed to have an understanding of what might be possible.
"I felt like there’s no fan base, no organization that’s starving and hungry to win more than the Knicks in the NBA," Randle said shortly after signing. "And I don’t think there’s a better place in the NBA to win than with the Knicks in New York. So for me it was a no-brainer. And like I said, every day I wake up, I pinch myself. I’m excited."
For the first time in a long time, Knicks fans are feeling the same way.