NBA

Knicks’ Julius Randle making unorthodox but compelling case for Most Improved Player behind selfless approach

Julius Randle was a ball hog in his first season with the Knicks. The problem developed so quickly that by December, Randle had to apologize to the team for his lack of leadership, according to The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov. In April, sources told the New York Post‘s Marc Berman that several players, including No. 3 overall pick RJ Barrett, remained frustrated with his playing style. 

Those frustrations were entirely justified. Only three players at Randle’s usage rate of 27.6 percent averaged fewer than his 3.1 assists per game last season: Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid and Zion Williamson. Those three made up for limited passing with elite scoring. Randle didn’t. He was the only one of the four with an effective field goal percentage below 50 percent, yet he turned the ball over more often than any of the other three. He finished 16th in the NBA in overall turnovers, directly behind Damian Lillard, exactly the sort of star ball-handler he tried — and failed — to emulate. 

Randle was paid to be an elite scorer, so he tried to act like one. His tunnel vision regularly led him into completely packed paints. It didn’t matter. He shot it anyway: 

Those turnovers were often the result of his own ambition, particularly on ill-advised spin moves:  

Randle had slipped into selfish stretches earlier in his career, but never for an entire season. Randle averaged fewer assists per 36 minutes in his first season as a Knick than he did in any full season since his first healthy one as a Laker, and he did that despite his biggest offensive role ever. That says as much about his skill-set as his attitude. Randle is a skilled passer. He just hasn’t always been a willing one. He almost never was last season. 

The results were what you’d expect. The Knicks finished 27th in offense. They explored offseason trades. They even drafted his replacement, Obi Toppin, No. 8 overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. Randle, guaranteed only $4 million for the 2021-22 season, seemed destined to be waived over the summer. And then Tom Thibodeau did what he does best: He doubled-down. 

Randle is playing 38.4 minutes per game this season, second only to his teammate, Barrett. That is a Thibodeau calling card, and it has borne fruit on both ends of the floor. Randle’s improved fitness and commitment to defense has been among this season’s greatest surprises. The Knicks have a top-10 defense through seven games, and Randle has held opposing players 13 percentage points below their season-long field goal percentage, according to NBA.com tracking data. That’s the eighth-best mark in the NBA among players who have appeared in at least five games. A career-high 11.4 rebounds per game doesn’t hurt either. 

But Randle’s reward for doing the dirty work has been offensive freedom, as Thibodeau has empowered him to handle the ball more than he even did last season. For the first time in his career, he leads his team in total touches. In fact, his 94.8 touches per game are the fourth most in all of basketball, ahead of even James Harden. He’s holding the ball longer when he gets it (3.0 seconds per touch this season compared to 2.76 last season), and he’s dribbling more in that time (1.77 dribbles per touch vs. 1.67 last season). On paper, this would suggest that Randle is more of a ball hog this season than he was last. 

But the opposite has been true. Seemingly overnight, Randle transformed from a power forward into a point forward. The difference in his passing numbers across the board compared to last season are absolutely staggering. 

Assists per game

3.1

7.4

Secondary assists per game

0.2

0.6

Points created off assists per game

8.3

20.3

Total passes per game

46.1

69.1

Through seven games, Randle is making more passes per game than Ben Simmons and more passes per minute than Stephen Curry. He is creating more points per game off his assists than LeBron James and Luka Doncic. He is averaging more assists per game than Nikola Jokic ever has over a full season. And he’s doing all of this while sharing the court with a pass-first point guard in Elfrid Payton and a high-volume wing scorer in Barrett. 

It’s not as if Randle has learned how to pass overnight. He’s just become far more willing to do so in the very situations he refused to a year ago. When he drives into traffic now, he does so looking to pass: 

That desire to share the wealth has made Randle a more patient player. He’s waiting out double-teams more than ever this season in an effort to punish defenses for over-committing: 

That attitude hasn’t been limited to post-ups. Randle has become far more aware of what both his reputation as a ball hog and his overall gravity as a scorer can do for teammates. Centers expect him to try to score in the lane, and will often step up to approach him there at the expense of covering their own man: 

These are more basic, passive versions of ball movement. Randle is taking what the defense gives him. But where possible, he’s also done a remarkable job of creating passing opportunities out of thin air. On this play against Milwaukee, he immediately knows he has a mismatch in terms of size with Jrue Holiday guarding him. He could try to exploit it as a scorer, but instead, he inches toward the nail knowing that Donte DiVincenzo will instinctively want to help. As soon as he does, Randle kicks it back out to Reggie Bullock, DiVincenzo’s man. From the moment Randle gets the ball, he’s thinking about that 3-pointer on the other side of the court: 

These are high IQ plays that rely on a passer being aware of everything happening around him on the court. That awareness is what creates easy points. Randle watched Kyle Lowry’s eyes on this play, caught him napping, and stole two of the easiest points of the game with this pass: 

He’s even deploying that dangerous spin move more carefully, protecting the ball in crowds but more often using it to give himself advantageous angles for both passing and scoring:

There are selfish benefits to playing this selflessly. Randle is taking the exact same number of shots per game as he was last season — 15.7 — but averaging 2.6 more points per night because he’s not forcing as many bad shots. A career high in assists (7.4) has led to a new career high in scoring (22.1 points per game), which in turn is coming at near-career highs in practically every measure of efficiency. Embracing passing has made Randle better at almost everything else on offense. 

And if he continues to do so, he’ll become a fascinating case study in how voters determine the NBA’s Most Improved Player. The winners are almost always younger than Randle, as 10 of the past 12 were still on their rookie contract and eight of them still played for the team that drafted them. Voters disproportionately favor players who take leaps as scorers. Those past 12 winners, on average, added 6.9 points per game to their totals. It has made the award somewhat formulaic. A young player gets more playing time and, having learned from the mistakes of his first couple of years, becomes the player we expected him to become. 

That history contrasts so interestingly with Randle because, after last season, nobody could have expected him to become the player he’s been over the past two weeks. It’s an entirely different sort of improvement. Randle hasn’t acquired new skills or put himself on the map. He has made the conscious decision to play a more inclusive style, one that is more conducive to winning. 

It’s a sort of improvement that should be rewarded because it’s more attainable. Not every player has the talent or opportunity to become a 20-point scorer, but anyone can choose to buy in and play team basketball. Honoring someone who made that choice to such an extreme degree is an acknowledgment of the power of that decision. The New York Knicks finished 24 games below .500 last season. They’re one game above it now. If improvement is a measure of how much more a player impacts winning from one season to the next, the Knicks are making Randle’s case for him. So far this season, they are winning basketball games, thanks at least in part to Randle outgrowing his past as a ball hog. 


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