There wasn’t much debate about whether Julius Randle would come back down to Earth. It seemed more a matter of when.
After Randle’s brilliant 2020-21 season — career highs in scoring, assists and 3-point accuracy, and All-Star and All-NBA selections for leading the Knicks to a surprise No. 4 playoff seed — reached an unceremonious conclusion at the hands of the Hawks, it felt likely the “upward trajectory” portion of his story was over. Fairy tales end; guys who win Most Improved Player in Year 7 don’t tend to keep getting better. The only question, once Randle reached that peak, was just how much it’d hurt when he landed back in the valley.
A lot, it turns out.
Randle’s stats remained strong last season: He was one of only four players to average at least 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game, joining three of the top-five finishers in MVP voting. But both his shot and his defensive effort fell off a cliff, and the Knicks fell back below .500 and missed the playoffs. All the good vibes of his surprising emergence as the heart of a reborn Knicks team dissipated in a hail of clanged jumpers, declined comments and thumbs pointed straight to hell.
As a result, Randle entered this season in an interesting position. He was still New York’s No. 1 option, after Leon Rose’s well-chronicled pursuit of Donovan Mitchell ended up with the Utah All-Star in Cleveland. But he needed to revamp his game and rehabilitate his image, lest the toxicity fester further and the league start viewing him primarily as a negative-value nine-figure contract attached to a player who doesn’t help you win.
Changing can be hard; sometimes, we all need a little help. Randle has done his part to shift the storyline, averaging 20 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game to help pace the Knicks to a 3-1 start after they held on for a 134-131 overtime win over the Hornets on Wednesday. Part of the credit for that fast start, though, belongs to the arrival of Jalen Brunson, a new table-setting running buddy with the game and the clout to help nudge Randle away from his worse tendencies.
After spending most of the past two seasons dominating the ball for teams that had few reliable shot-creating options, Randle’s usage rate, time of possession, touches, dribbles per touch and seconds per touch are all down. He averaged two pull-up 3-point attempts per game last season, despite missing two-thirds of those tries; he has taken just three in New York’s first four games, redirecting his long-distance diet toward the catch-and-shoot looks he has tended to make more frequently throughout his career.
That redistribution is a big deal. Randle’s predilection toward jab-stepping and dancing late into the shot clock before eventually hoisting a contested jumper often sapped the Knicks’ offense of flow and punch last season. So far this season, he’s taking more shots off zero or one dribble, and fewer off of three-or-more bounces, according to NBA.com’s shot tracking. And replacing a few of these …
… with a few more of these …
… represents a much healthier state of affairs for Randle’s offensive approach.
After Monday’s win over the Magic, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau praised Randle for “the way he’s diversifying his game” in the early going. That increased variety has borne fruit: He’s scoring more in fewer minutes this season, posting by far the lowest turnover rate of his career, and shooting 54 percent on 2-pointers, his best mark since coming to New York in 2019.
When it comes to the relationship between Randle’s control of the offense and his productivity in it, less has been more — an early season surfing of the usage/efficiency curve that helps underscore why New York went to such great lengths to land Brunson in free agency.
Quiet as it’s kept, the Knicks weren’t that bad last season; they finished 37-45, but had the point differential of a .500 team. In fact, if you jettison the minutes given to Kemba Walker in an offense-boosting experiment gone awry, they actually outscored opponents by 3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — a better net rating than they managed during their 2021 playoff run — and fielded a top-five-caliber defense, even with Randle grousing, misfiring and barely trotting back on defense.
Merely installing a competent point guard could’ve steered the Knicks back toward postseason contention. But Knicks brass bet that adding one whose skills, production and demeanor would merit enough respect from Randle to get him to accept a changed role could bring even greater benefits. They bet that Brunson, fresh off of averaging just under 22-5-4 for a Mavericks team that made the Western Conference finals, would fit the bill, and so far, so good: New York is plus-27 in 120 minutes with Randle and Brunson sharing the court, scoring a scorching 122.8 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Brunson, who has totaled 34 assists against just six turnovers in his first four games as the Knicks’ new floor general, has looked early and often to lead Randle into open space — whether Randle’s rumbling downhill after setting a screen, getting a deep seal in the post or filling the lane in transition:
“He just makes the game so much easier for me,” Randle recently told reporters. “If I keep moving, run the floor, he’s always looking to make the right play, so he gets me going.”
Getting Randle going helps get everyone else going, too, and the Knicks — stuck in the mud for most of Thibs’ tenure — have definitely prioritized getting on the move to start the season. After finishing 29th in possessions per 48 minutes last season, New York is up to 16th in pace and has accelerated the average amount of time it takes to get a shot up from 27th in 2021-22 all the way up to ninth so far, according to Inpredictable.
It’s not exactly Seven Seconds or Less — though we would welcome Thibs experimenting with turning his new beard into a D’Antonian ’stache — but the Knicks are clearly looking to outlet the ball and get into their offense more quickly and averaging about 2.5 more fast-break points per game than last season. The ball’s popping a bit more, too — from 20th in passes per game and dead last in assists per game in 2021-22 up to seventh and 10th so far.
Basically, all that stuff that every coach says at the start of training camp about how he wants his team to play faster and hunt easy buckets? The Knicks are actually doing it, with Brunson and Randle leading the pack. And when Randle doesn’t have it going — like on Wednesday, when he shot 7-of-19 from the floor, with point-blank looks rimming out — New York can turn to a steady-handed late-game option capable of chiseling his way into good looks in crunch time:
After squandering a 12-point third-quarter lead, the Knicks trailed Charlotte by five with just over two minutes to go in the fourth quarter; last year’s model probably loses that game. Enter Brunson, who scored or assisted on 11 points over the final seven-plus minutes — and who finished with a game-high 27 points, a career-high-tying 13 assists and seven rebounds — to keep the Knicks’ strong start rolling.
They needed that because their schedule is about to turn brutal. Their next two weeks bring meetings with the Bucks, Cavaliers, Hawks, 76ers, Celtics and Timberwolves, capped by a trip across the Hudson River to take on the Nets at Barclays Center. A five-game West Coast swing looms past that.
We’ll know a lot more about these Knicks a month from now — about whether R.J. Barrett, off to another sluggish start as a shooter and playmaker, is ready to live up to his new extension; about whether Thibodeau’s protect-the-paint-at-all-costs defense can survive giving up open corner threes well enough to maintain its top-10 ranking; about whether Thibs might finally give third-year live wire Obi Toppin and the rest of New York’s bright young bench a longer leash and heavier minutes. The Knicks’ best chance of surviving what promises to be a bruising fight for a postseason berth in the East, though, likely rests with Brunson continuing to steer Randle toward his All-Star peak rather than his also-ran valley, and firmly taking the wheel when things start to veer off-course.
Just because the fairy tale’s over, that doesn’t mean you can’t write a new story. Especially when your new writing partner’s pretty damn good.