Rewind to last summer for a moment. This was supposed to be the era of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant for New York Knicks fans. But when the time came for superstar free agents to bite at the opportunity of playing in Madison Square Garden, no one budged, leaving team brass to scramble after next-tier players.
That included the scrappy, powerful and talented Julius Randle.
Coming off a career-best season for the New Orleans Pelicans, the 6’8” forward had averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.4 percent shooting. Thus, he was supposed to be the top dog on this roster.
He has, however, more often than not become the scapegoat for yet another lost season.
Yet, Randle leads the Knicks in scoring this year with 19.5 points per game, and there’s no doubt that his success is vital to the team’s.
Per Advanced NBA stats, Randle’s points differential between wins and losses is the highest among all Knicks (4.2). In games that he registers a +/- of at least -eight, the Knicks are 12-3.
And having inked a three-year $62.10M deal prior to the start of the season, Randle is here to stay.
With all the focus on the team’s young core, including second-year big man Mitchell Robinson, people often forget that Randle is only 25 years old. This means he has at least a couple more years of development possible.
Despite what appears to be a year of regression, Randle can be very effective if placed in the right situation as we’ll explore.
RANDLE’S EARLY CAREER
Randle had an inauspicious start to his career after being picked seventh in the 2014 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. During his career-opening matchup with the Houston Rockets, Randle suffered a season-ending injury, fracturing his left leg after seeing just 14 minutes of action.
He would come back the following season to prove his true worth, putting together three very encouraging campaigns that showed improvement in each.
A stocky and agile power forward, Randle muscled his way to averages of 16.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists on 55.8 percent shooting in just 26.7 minutes by the 2017-18 season.
But the Lakers began cutting costs in order to chase big-name free agents. That meant the young core (including Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram) they’d spent years drafting began to go its separate ways over the next couple years.
Randle inked a two year, $18M deal with the New Orleans Pelicans, putting together the best averages of his young career for the 2018-19 season while helping to steady a team going through its own tribulations with star forward Anthony Davis.
Randle averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.4 percent shooting while again providing tremendous flexibility.
Just as he had done in Los Angeles, he proved comfortable coming off the bench or starting, often moving between both forward positions seamlessly to accommodate big and small lineups alike.
Fast forward to the 2019-20 season and the Randle-led Knicks are 21-45 while awaiting closure from the Covid-19-induced stoppage.
Randle’s averages have hovered around his career numbers, but his shot selection, field goal percentages, defensive impact and turnover-prone style have left a lot to be desired.
Here are few things that will help him get back on track and give the Knicks a much-needed boost:
GET THE BALL OUT OF HIS HANDS
Considering his size, Randle has always been known for his above-average ball-handling skills, but this hasn’t made him a natural facilitator: His assist-to-turnover ratio has hovered around the 1:1 mark throughout his career.
So when former Knicks coach David Fizdale made the decision to utilize Randle as a point-forward, it led to a lot of offensive inefficiencies.
What makes it worse is Randle’s propensity to over-dribble, rely on a series of spin moves and take the ball straight into traffic.
Put the ball in the hands of a facilitator, however, and Randle finds ways to become very effective again.
His go-to move is to slash down the middle (either as the roll man or from the perimeter), and he can use his powerful frame to literally bounce off defenders and get to the cup.
Randle’s knack for making uncanny ‘bad’ shots at the basket also makes it easier for him to score in this fashion.
Per Advanced NBA stats, Randle’s shot-making efficiency significantly goes up (from 44.8 percent to 53.5) when he only needs a couple of dribbles to get to the cup, (as opposed to needing more than three).
FEATURE RANDLE IN THE POST
The modern NBA game relies on all five positions stretching the floor. The four in today’s game often finds his spot on the perimeter, slashing when needed.
In Randle’s case, while his frame and skills lend themselves to this style of play, he is prone to taking a high volume of outside shots. Unfortunately,, he has never shot better than 34.4 percent from deep. Worse for the Knicks, Randle is currently “hitting” a woeful 27.7 percent.
When featured on the low block, however, Randle poses significant matchup problems on defense: He’s too strong for the smaller forwards and too quick for bigger defenders.
The goal has been to feature Randle and young center Mitchell Robinson together wherever possible since the latter can cover for the former’s defensive issues. Unfortunately, until one or both add range to their jump shots, they’re almost better off having their minutes staggered.
That’s just the way the modern NBA goes, and until the Knicks rectify this problem (whether by scheme or roster reconstruction), they’re young bigs are subject to the law of diminishing returns.
PICK LINEUPS TO SPACE THE FLOOR
Randle has never been a great passer but he does show potential in flashes.
In every stop along the way, effective lineups with Randle usually feature shooters that can space the floor.
While in New Orleans, those lineups typically featured forward E’Twaun Moore (career 39.0 percent shooter from three) and guard Jrue Holiday (35.5 percent). In Los Angeles, the lineups featured some combination of guards Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, forward Kyle Kuzma and center Brook Lopez.
All had the ability to at least keep defenses honest with the deep ball.
In New York, a lack of quality shooters has often crowded the lane for Randle, leaving him the task of maneuvering through two, sometimes even three defenders. This has certainly contributed in a big way to Randle’s career-worst 3.0 turnover average for the season.
In short spurts, lineups featuring forwards Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock and guard Frank Ntilikina have helped ease the problem. Coach Mike Miller would do well to go back to similar lineups when the Knicks resume play.
It’s even more imperative that the Knicks look to add more quality shooters to the lineup (via free agency or trade) if they want to feature Randle going forward.
EFFORT ON DEFENSE
This is perhaps Randle’s biggest shortcoming. The potential is certainly there, but a frequent lack of effort makes him a non-factor on defense.
To some degree, lineups featuring big man Robinson alongside Randle have helped tide over the shortcomings. But with Robinson’s propensity to pick up quick fouls, the Knicks are left with what legendary Knicks announcer Walt Frazier calls, “Swizz-cheese defense”.
Randle can surely do more to help in this area:
Somehow, Randle is only averaging 0.3 blocks and 0.8 steals this season.
It’s unfair to make cast him as the cause for all of the Knicks’ woes this season, but there is certainly more the team, coaching staff and Randle himself can do to make his game more effective and put some more wins on the board.
Randle has the potential to be a real threat. It’s just a matter of putting him in the best spot to be effective.