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An Improved Julius Randle Raising More Questions than Answers in New York

Basketball Insiders’ Drew Maresca examines Julius Randle’s recent surge in playmaking and looks ahead at how it change the trajectory of the New York Knicks.

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This might come as a surprise, but the New York Knicks are, in fact, watchable this season. While insinuating that a .500 team is playing surprisingly well might be insulting to most, the Knicks hadn’t won 50% of their first 6 games more than once in the past 8 season – until now.

Granted, all of the problems that led to that unfortunate streak haven’t magically disappeared. New York has scored at a league-worst rate of 101.7 points per game and there are still major question marks around a number of younger players such as Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox.

That said, they’ve given up the fifth-fewest points per game (104.7) and, while there is serious room for improvement on the offensive end, the Knicks’ wins have come against quality opponents; each has come against a team currently slotted in the playoff picture. What’s more, they are getting acquainted with shooting the corner 3 – a staple of the modern game. Mitchell Robinson may have figured out how to stay on the court and out of foul trouble, while Immanuel Quickley’s energy and uncanny ability to draw fouls has done a lot for New York’s bench.

So, while struggles were inevitable given the Knicks possess the second-youngest roster in the NBA, per RealGM, progress was expected and has been a joy to watch. And that progress has been spearheaded by a surprising benefactor: 26-year-old Julius Randle.

Randle, drafted 7th overall in 2014, is an established scorer with a career average of 16.2 points per game. This season, he’s improved that to the tune of 21.2 points per game and has shot 50% from three on 3.7 shots per game – all of which are career-highs. But, despite his offensive production, his usage is actually down from last season (from 27.6 to 25.4 in 2020-21), indicating that he’s continued to produce, and even improved, despite fewer opportunities.

Still, it’s not his scoring that’s making the biggest impact. Instead, it’s Randle’s transformation into a point-forward that’s proven most important to the Knicks’ success this season. Randle has dished out a career-high 7.2 assists per game. He’s already tallied a triple-double this season, and was two and three assists away from one, respectively, on two other occasions, after going the entire 2019-20 season without one. Meanwhile, Randle’s also averaged double-figure rebounds (10.5 per game), a feat only accomplished once in his first 6 seasons.

And, while those numbers are encouraging, they still don’t tell the entire story. There’s a calmness to Randle’s game this season that simply wasn’t there before.

Historically, Randle was a freight train, charging into the teeth of the defense and intimidating opponents with a unique combination of size and speed. While the comparisons between Zion Williamson and Randle were meant to set Williamson’s floor prior to the 2019 NBA Draft, they also speak to Randle’s play style. Teams took those positives with his negatives: an unpredictability and general slopiness with the ball that always seemed to come back to bite him and the team.

But, this season, that aspect has seemingly gone from Randle’s game as he’s thrived as a playmaker for the Knicks. At this point in the season, Randle has managed a career-high 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. Surprisingly, that mark has placed him higher than other, more established, star forwards such as Kevin Durant (1.47) and Pascal Siakam (1.08). Further, Randle has assisted on 32.7% of teammate field goes when on the floor, good for 17th in the entire league, another career mark and up more than 10 points from his previous best (19.3%).

Obviously, Randle underwent a philosophical shift between this season and the last, augmenting his entire offensive approach. He’s even become a more willing passer in non-assist situations as he’s racked up numerous, crucial hockey assists — passes that lead into the passes that become assists.

But what does his improved play mean for New York? It’s difficult to project, especially considering how they handled Marcus Morris just last season.

Morris was in the midst of a career year, as he posted a career-high in points, three-point percentage, three-point attempts and three-point field goals made. He also enjoyed the highest usage rate of his career (24.4). Case and points, Morris looked like a complete player, one that could seriously help his team win games, before the Knicks shipped him to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for a first round pick. That said, the 2020-21 version of Randle may be better suited than Morris to lead New York’s offense — he’s demonstrated newfound leadership qualities while his dedication and approach to the game have never been more evident. Randle’s even flashed on defense, where his abilities have proven lacking throughout his career.

The change in Randle’s game may have transformed him into the star the Knicks have longed for since Carmelo Anthony saw a dropoff in production and left town. He could easily find himself on an All-Star team this season and could, potentially, make some noise in the race for Most Improved.

Still, nothing is certain with the Knicks. They’re operating under a new head coach, Tom Thibodeau, and a rookie team president, Leon Rose. Neither Thibodeau nor Rose were part of New York’s leadership when Randle was signed, so it’s unclear how they may view him in their long-term plans for the franchise. With Randle only guaranteed $4 million next season, the two could move on from him, whether via trade or otherwise, rather easily if they so desired.

If they don’t see him as a long term fit, exchanging Randle for draft compensation between now and the trade deadline may be their best bet. That said, any team looking to add Randle’s skillset would likely be in the playoff hunt, returning, at best, a late lottery selection — would that pick return someone as skilled or conducive to success as Randle has proven this season (or could prove in future seasons as the Knicks continue to stockpile young talent)? Nothing is certain.

NBA roster management is a difficult enterprise. While Randle’s improvement from last season to now have surely been a welcome surprise, it’s also provided the Knicks with options and raised certain questions about the future of the roster that they didn’t have to think about much as recently as a month ago. While they’re expected, once again, to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the tide in New York would finally seem to be turning — will Randle be around to see it fully come around? Only time will tell.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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