Julius Randle’s time in the league has been marked by ups and downs. Where does the embattled Knicks star go from here?
Julius Randle caught the ball in the high post and sized up his defender, all but licking his lips at the speed advantage he knew he had. He jabbed left and took two hard dribbles right, drawing the helpside rim protector as he exploded into his man’s body and attempted to dump the ball off to his center. The ball was poked free and both teams were off and running the other way – everyone except for Randle, who remained down, leaning against the stanchion and grimacing in pain. He’d heard the pop; he knew what had happened before the doctors did.
His tibia was fractured. He was 14 minutes into his NBA career. The following day, head coach Byron Scott would describe the scene that played out in a private room in Staples Center following the game, saying he was “basically holding him and just listening to him cry.”
Before that, back on the court, as team trainer Gary Vitti wrapped Randle’s leg to keep it immobilized and the medical staff got the stretcher ready for him, Kobe Bryant was in his ear. Later that night, Kobe was in his text inbox. “Your rehabilitation and your mindset starts now,” Bryant told him after reminding him that other greats had suffered similar injuries and come back stronger, not only referencing his own Achilles tear, but also fellow Los Angeles power forward Blake Griffin, who had missed his entire first year only to be named to five straight All-Star teams in his first five years playing. The sentiment was reinforced by Lakers great “Big Game” James Worthy, who called him up at midnight to tell him the story of his own broken tibia as a rookie.
Randle credited Kobe with being one of the main people to get him out of what he called his “pity party.” “I’ve cried a couple times about it,” Randle said. “But, I mean, I cry for 10 minutes, then I’m good.”
Kobe consoling Randle. The rookie was in a lot of pain. pic.twitter.com/R7wQaOGOW4
— Beto Durán (@DuranSports) October 29, 2014
The injury would keep him out the rest of the year, in which time he got two separate surgeries – one on the right leg and one to remove a pin from a fractured right foot that kept him off the court for all but the final five games of his senior year, which he returned from to lead his team to a national championship. It was the first crossroads he was to face as an NBA player, but there were many still left to come.
Julius Randle arrived to the Lakers following a one-and-done year at Kentucky, which he had entered as the number two recruit in the country (Joel Embiid was 14th, behind Wayne Seldon, both Harrison twins, Kasey Hill and Chris Walker, Christian Wood was 48th, and Zach LaVine was 51st, for those keeping track at home). He joined a Wildcats recruiting class widely considered to be one of Calipari’s best and helped lead them all the way to the NCAA Championship game, which they lost to Shabazz Napier’s UConn Huskies.
Throughout his lone season in Lexington, Randle established himself as a dominant offensive rebounder and around-the-basket scorer, leading the team in usage, scoring, free throw attempts, and rebounding. A nagging ankle injury limited him in the NCAA tournament and was one of (though maybe not the only, given what we’ve seen the last few years) the reasons his production in the final two games was well behind his usual dominance.
But that dominance came in a very different form than we’re used to seeing from the 6’9 forward. While there were glimpses of the “top of the key, size-up and drive”/”grab and go” player that Knicks fans know so well, Randle did a majority of his damage off of post-ups, which made up 20% of his offense at Kentucky (compared to 12.9% last season) and on the offensive boards, almost completely eschewing midrange or three-point shooting in favor of bully-ball.
While he showed some real passing flashes, especially off drives, his assist rate of 10% was lower than any year in the NBA, and minuscule compared to the 25-plus% mark he’s posted the last two seasons. His predilection for tunnel vision was, at times, so extreme that in a pre-draft anonymous scout roundup (which should always be taken with Bolivian Salt Flats-quantities of grains of salt), multiple scouts said some flat-out variation of “he can’t pass.”
A more prescient pre-draft observation that will resonate with anyone who has watched the Knicks over the last three years came from Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman: “You can count on him spinning into traffic instead of away from it at least twice a game. Randle doesn’t always recognize where the help is and sometimes goes into predetermined attack mode without an escape plan.”
Still, his rare blend of mobility, size, and ball skills were enough for him to be a consensus top-10 pick, and walk into a position all basketball players dream of, but few have a chance to actually take a crack at: being the guy to whom the torch is passed by an all-time great player.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Randle spent the next three years in Los Angeles figuring out his game and steadily improving. As an ostensible rookie, he looked not dissimilar to the Kentucky version of himself. He posted by far the highest rebounding rate of his career (19.5% – the second-highest rate would be 16.3%, which he recorded the following year) and did a vast majority of his scoring damage at the rim. Per NBA.com’s stats, he attempted 447 shots in the restricted area in the 2015-2016 season, compared to 182 in the non-restricted area paint, 170 in the midrange, and 36 threes. Even then, the skill flashes were there, as he recorded his first triple-double as a pro, becoming the youngest Laker since Magic Johnson to do so.
The following year, his rebounding number fell but his assist rate took a major leap, from 11.0% the previous year to 19.3% as Randle was given more room to operate on a young and terrible team attempting to transition to a rebuild in the first year of the post-Kobe era. While his number of non-restricted area paint field goal attempts jumped to 216, he still took a vast majority of his shots in the restricted area – 395, which he scored at a 61.1% effective field goal percentage.
In what was to be his final year in the purple and gold, Lakers fans saw Randle add the final piece that was missing from his already intriguingly well-rounded skillset: the defense.
How about Julius Randle's defense when switched onto a couple of scoring champions in crunch time? pic.twitter.com/HiV0nW5bEu
— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) November 30, 2017
While Randle was never going to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, in the first Contract Year of his career, it seemed that he flipped a switch, realizing that his speed mismatch against fellow power forwards and centers and strength mismatch against wings wasn’t only a boon on the offensive end. He came into the year noticeably slimmed-down and was shifted to more of a small-ball center role, and Luke Walton’s Lakers were rewarded by the decision with a defense that stayed in the top-10 for much of the season before ultimately settling at 12th. Make no mistake – Brook Lopez, rookie Lonzo Ball, and Kentavious “Bread From Heaven” Caldwell-Pope were all instrumental in the team’s defensive resurgence, but Randle was the versatile glue holding all the pieces together.
Consider this quote, from Lakers writer Joey Ramirez:
Randle has been isolated by opponents more than any other player in the league this season, except Houston’s Ryan Anderson (a known defensive liability). But opponents have come to learn that Randle is no longer a defender that can be picked on. They have shot just 14-of-46 on isolation possessions against him. That 30.4 percent clip is the best defensive mark by any player that has faced at least 30 iso shots. Only former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol has a comparable clip among bigs (5-of-15), though he has been isolated just a third of the time Randle has.
At the same time, his scoring output reached new a new career high of 16.1 points a night, thanks in large part to his shot selection refinement. He posted a career-high in the frequency of shots at the rim (54.5%), a career-low in shots from 10-16 feet (4.1%), and the second-lowest marks in shots from the long midrange and three (4.8% and 5.0%, respectively), likely due to his lack of success from deep. With Lopez spacing the floor for him, he posted a ridiculous 68.7% effective field goal percentage at the rim, though his passing output decreased to a respectable but less impressive 15.8%.
After years of building his game up following his rookie injury, Randle had arrived, and at the perfect time to capitalize on his momentum with a big payday from the Lakers to be their star of the future, growing alongside fellow high picks Ball and Brandon Ingram.
And yet, there was a fly in the ointment – or maybe it’s more accurate to say a GOAT.
On one hand, after playing with Kobe Bryant, the chance to suit up next to LeBron James would be a dream come true for many young players. But for someone who plays the same position, a lesser version of the same role, and who knows they’re likely to be moved the second a deal for an established star can be made, there is merit to said player asking the Lakers to let them go.
Once again, Julius Randle was at a crossroads, so he did what any of us must in such a situation: he evolved.
Instead of the massive long-term contract most stars-in-making look forward to after completing their rookie deal, Randle had to settle for a two-year, $18 million contract with the Pelicans, the second year containing a player option. Of the top-seven picks in the 2014 draft, only Jabari Parker made less on their second deal, despite the fact that in the final year of his rookie contract, Randle led all seven in Win Shares, Offensive Win Shares, Offensive Rebound Rate, Free Throw Rate, and True Shooting, and was second in VORP, BPM, Win Shares per 48, and Defensive Win Shares.
Once in New Orleans, his game took on a rather different feel. After starting the year coming off the bench behind the Nikola Mirotic-Anthony Davis frontcourt that had seen success the previous year, Randle eventually grabbed the starting spot and his scoring output skyrocketed. After scoring 30 or more points just twice in three years in Tinseltown, Randle hit the 30-mark 11 times for New Orleans, including a monster game against Portland where he put up 45 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three blocks, and two steals.
While his number of shots at the rim was still consistent with his Lakers days, and still very effective (44.6% of his shot diet, with a 66.4% effective field goal percentage), his three-point rate exploded. After shooting 129 above-the-break threes in his first three years in the league, he shot 160 in his lone year in the bayou, connecting on 34.4% of them.
But not every change was for the better. The defensive strides he’d made the year before seemed to fall into a chasm. While not entirely his fault, lineups with him playing the small-ball center role that had been so effective with the Lakers hemorrhaged points for most of the season, and at times he seemed disconnected on that end of the floor.
While playing armchair psychologist is always a little reckless, it seemed in some ways that, staring down the barrel of yet another contract year, Randle decided that in order to secure the bag he had lost out on the year before, he had to say “screw it” and just focus on one thing: getting buckets, by any means necessary – after all, it worked for draft classmate Andrew Wiggins, right?
And you know what? It worked for Randle too!
With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Zion Williamson, and Kristaps Porzingis all settling into their new non-MSG homes, the Knicks turned to their plan B, inking Randle to a three-year, $62 million deal to be their unquestioned number one option – well, once they flipped Marcus Morris for a draft asset.
Now, if you’re reading this piece (thanks for getting this far, here’s a prize!) you already know much of what has happened since then. The struggles establishing himself in year one, the bounceback year to end all bounceback years, and the brutal come-down back to Earth. For a player whose career has been defined by ups and downs, his time with the Knicks has been especially volatile. Every consecutive off-season has posed a new, fascinating question for Randle to address.
Randle’s first crossroads came after his disastrous first season with the Knicks, a year in which his scoring and efficiency both dropped under the burden of being a primary scorer. Emboldened, no doubt, by his shooting success with the Pelicans, Randle’s attempts at the rim nosedived. Only 35.8% of his shots came at the rim, a number 7.9% lower than his previous career low, while the 23% of his shot diet that came from threes was five percent higher than his previous career-high. 9.7% of his shots came from the short midrange, also a career-high. The shots weren’t falling, the team wasn’t gelling, and most damning of all, the defense was atrocious.
But following a summer that saw fans discussing their desire to trade their top dog for a bag of Zapp’s Voodoo Chips (which are delicious), Randle, to his credit, came back with one of the most impressive mid-career transformations we’ve seen in recent years. In a universe predicated on random events, Julius Randle morphing into prime Dirk Nowitzki with Shawn Marion’s defense and Jason Kidd’s floor orchestration and leading the Knicks to homecourt advantage in the playoffs still stands out as a notably random and unpredictable event.
His assist rate skyrocketed, nearly doubling from the previous three years, and it didn’t seem to matter what his shot distribution was, that he took the same percentage of shots at the rim as Trae Young or midrange shots at a rate just below DeMar DeRozan – any shot he took was going in.
Except here’s the thing about that last sentence: it’s not true.
Why did it matter what shots he took? Because of what came next.
Following the Knicks’ gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Hawks, it was clear to anyone who had watched that Randle was due for some level of regression. The side-step midrange shots that had been automatic all season deserted him in the playoffs, and there was much talk about how if Randle wanted to shield himself from the cruel sickle-sweep of regression, he’d need to trade in some of the tough pull-ups for rim attempts.
Randle had done something incredibly difficult: putting together an All-NBA season. But that left him at a new kind of crossroads: how to maintain that level of play when he wasn’t having a Like Mike-style fever dream of a shooting year.
(shot charts via nba.com/stats)
And in Randle’s defense, he did raise his amount of shots at the rim a bit. But the amount, 25.4% was still far below every other year of his career, outside of the aforementioned 2020-2021 season, and was compounded by the fact that he upped his three-point rate even more, from 29.4% of his shot diet in ’20-’21 to 31.3% last season, despite his shooting percentage plummeting by over 10%.
Now, it could be argued that just like the 2020-2021 season was an outlier, so was this most recent one. After all, with the exception of the long midrange, his shots fell at a rate about three percent lower than his career averages across the board. So it’s possible some of those numbers trend back upwards. But the real problem is that while his midrange and three-point shooting have skyrocketed over the last two years, his rim attempts have basically been cut in half, despite that historically being his strongest scoring zone on the court.
On the non-scoring fronts, it was a mixed bag. His passing was still more effective than detractors would give him credit for, but the really frustrating part was that the defense, which had, in some ways, been the bedrock of his success the year before, once again slipped away into the ether. I don’t need to post the clips. We’ve all seen them.
Clear and present crossroads
All of which brings us to today, to what is maybe the most crucial crossroads Randle has yet come to. RJ’s star has ascended, to the point where the question of who should be the primary focus of the front office’s teambuilding efforts has been firmly put to bed. The latest and biggest free agent signing by the team in years is Jalen Brunson, whose game closely resembles the point guard version of who Randle wants to be. If the Knicks are able to swing a trade for Donovan Mitchell, that will already be three high-usage players to whom the team is committed. Where does Randle fit into that picture?
The truth is, he probably doesn’t. But this crossroads goes beyond simply his role with the Knicks. The “Randle as a number one option” experiment seems to be over, and not just in the Garden. But the problem then becomes: what does he look like as a second or even third option on a good team? There’s reason to think such a totem restructuring could actually pay off for him – after all, he’s always been at his most efficient when forced to make quick decisions with the ball, rather than the “pound the air out of the rock” role he’s found himself in over the last few years.
Though his playmaking numbers would likely decrease, the hope would be that these years of running the offense would help him make quicker decisions, ideally from the high post or in the short roll. But right now, that hope is outweighed by the reality of the last season’s performance.
The seemingly dry trade market for a player a year removed from All NBA is a “pull no punches” reflection of this conundrum. After all, even putting aside the shot for a moment, Randle is now seven years into his career and there’s a clear and very strange pattern of his defensive performance that has developed in that time: two years off for every one year on.
2015-2017? Awful defense. 2017-2018 season? Good. 2018-2020? Bad defense. 2020-2021 season? Great! 2021-2023? Well, we haven’t seen the 2022-2023 season play out yet but as of right now, the pattern seems to be holding.
And given that Randle has only one season of hitting league average from three, we find ourselves with a very unusual and hard-to-fit player. What team is handing the reins over to a player whose shot and defense they can’t trust, especially one who seems to be a questionable locker room presence? If you look around the league, there are very few situations that make sense for him.
But this isn’t a trade value piece, it’s a piece on crossroads. Randle right now finds himself at a precipice. There is still a chance for him to be an incredibly impactful player, and to not just be worth his contract, but to return value on it. But it won’t just happen. There has to be a serious moment of self-reflection and honesty, and the will to make it happen.
Randle’s passing ability is genuinely special. Among non-lead guards, only Draymond Green, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brandon Ingram, Jimmy Butler, and Pascal Siakam averaged more potential assists than him – that’s four first-ballot Hall of Famers, two perennial All-Stars, and Ingram, whose time is coming. He also averaged more potential assists than either Jalen Brunson or Donovan Mitchell, but that’s neither here nor there.
Even in an era of the NBA where playmaking bigs are all the rage, Randle’s ability to dish the ball stands out. And as we saw in his All-NBA season, when locked in defensively, he can be one of the most disruptive big-man defenders in the league, even if it never equates to All-Defense awards.
If he’s willing to put his love of isolation scoring aside, and instead focus on the parts of his game that truly make him special, the scoring will still come. He would still be able to feast in the paint, knock down open jumpers in rhythm, and push the ball in transition as few forwards can. But that will take trust – trust in himself, trust in his team, and trust in the less glamorous parts of the game.
We’ve seen Randle change his game many times before. When he was in New Orleans, turning himself into as high a volume scorer as possible was what was best for his career, as it allowed him to prove himself on the big stage. But now, a new evolution is needed. The only question is: does he have the willingness and the faith in himself to face his new reality head-on, or will he fight the dying of the light, to the detriment of all?