Just how good has Julius Randle been this season?
For some time now, the Knicks have hardly been considered a side worth watching.
At the time of the season’s suspension in 2020, New York sat 12th in the Eastern Conference, with a 21-45 record. David Fitzdale was sacked early in the season and was replaced by Mike Miller who, whilst a better coaching option, still wasn’t the solution to the woes in the Big Apple.
A particular disappointment, in a sea of many for New York, was Julius Randle. In 2019 free agency, Randle signed with the Knicks to a $62 million, three-year deal. At the time, the contract was quite justifiable. Randle had averaged 21.4 points per game for the New Orleans Pelicans, on 60% true shooting, in what was a career high for the then 24-year-old.
This, alongside improved rebound, assist, steals and blocks numbers, as well as a 12% increase in three-point efficiency, meant that the Kentucky forward was of value when he signed to the Knicks in free agency. He certainly wasn’t the biggest name in the 2019 class, but he was still a respectable option who, given his projected trajectory, had been signed to a fairly good contract.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Randle was quite disappointing in his debut season at the Garden. His efficiency worsened and the promise that had made him so exciting had practically disappeared. With each passing week, the contract looked more and more like an overpay, as Randle continued to sour for his side.
By the end of the 19/20 season, Randle’s true shooting had declined from 60% to just under 54%. His points per game dropped to below 20, and Randle was no longer viewed as the promising starlet he was once known as.
One season, especially with a side as lacklustre as New York at the time, shouldn’t be enough to completely write a player off from potential greatness. Yet, sadly, it is, and this isn’t an exclusive aspect to basketball. In the majority of sports, one poor season can lead to disappointment and outrage.
Frustration is understandable. It’s normal to be angered at consistent poor performances from your team. Yet, because of the contract he was on, of which he had no control, Randle had been branded a failure by the conclusion of his first year with New York.
After yet another disappointment, Tom Thibodeau was drafted in as the new head coach for the New York Knicks. The hope was that, finally, New York would see a competent leader that could inspire the best in the likes of RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. Yet, incredibly, it is Julius Randle that has served as Thibodeau’s miracle.
Randle started the season hot, scoring at least 25 points in three of the first four games of his season, including an impressive win against the Milwaukee Bucks. With a new season having just started, as well as the bounce of a new head coach, Randle’s performances were marked an anomaly. Most said that Randle would soon return to earth but he just, well, didn’t.
The depressingly underwhelming performances that Knicks fans had begrudgingly become accustomed to are, seemingly, no more. After 44 games (at the time of writing), New York are a .500 side with a record of 22-22. Their path is on an unexpected, yet massively appreciated, upwards trajectory.
The introduction of Tom Thibodeau is to thank. The development of RJ Barrett, the emergence of Immanuel Quickley and the trade for Derrick Rose are too, no doubt, worth crediting. The glaring change, however, is the form of Julius Randle.
After a year of such bad form, Randle has exploded in his second season as a Knick, continuing to improve and impress. His averages of 23.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game are career bests, and by shooting at nearly 43% from three, his three-point percentage has increased by around 15%, a truly astonishing number.
Randle is playing with a coach that trusts his ability, and the confidence he enthuses is evident through the shots he takes. Below, is his heat map for shots in the 2019/20 NBA season (courtesy of Sofascore):
Randle was lacking the mid-range shot that, in New Orleans, he was shooting at a 56% efficiency. His first season in New York saw that number decline by 5%, and it was clear by watching his game. His second season, however:
Evidently, Randle’s confidence in his ability has grown drastically under his new coach. Ironically, his 2P% is actually worse, by three percent, this season than it was last year. The self-belief that Randle now possesses is clear through comparing the shot heat maps, and whilst it may be slightly less efficient, both he and his team are in a much better position because of it.
A first time All-Star in 2021, Julius Randle is a perfect example as to why there should be second thoughts around the notion of discarding a player as bad. All it seems to take is a change in mentality. A new coach may spur that, a new team, or teammate, may spur that also. Whatever it was that changed in Randle’s approach to basketball, he should know that his franchise has greatly benefitted from the step he has taken.
Written by James O'Reilly