The Knicks have to put Julius Randle in a position to succeed this season with nearly every facet of his game in decline.
The prize of the New York Knicks’ offseason, Julius Randle, takes turns looking like a bulldozer plowing down scarecrows and a ballerina gracefully tip-toeing through a packed obstacle course. When he’s playing well, he’s unstoppable for stretches, navigating through the teeth of the defense and looking for the open man. But when he’s bad…oh, is he bad.
Every devoted Knicks fan has suffered through myriad scrubs suiting up in the orange and blue who have no business being near the NBA, but somehow Randle is among the most frustrating to watch.
With Jrue Holiday last year, it looked like he had finally taken the step forward in which his balance, hands, efficiency, and overall shot selection turned the corner. The key was that Randle was playing with a high-level point guard and spacing that made everything easier on him.
Now, when the best player on the roster (and de facto point guard down the stretch of every game) is Marcus Morris chucking up contested 15-foot fadeaways seven seconds in to the shot clock, Randle mostly looks like he’s spinning around with one foot in a bucket.
Randle’s efficiency has dropped off a cliff—and his shot profile is more problematic this year. He seems to pass on every three-pointer he should take and fires on closely guarded, early shot-clock opportunities. His usage is still sky high, but his effective field goal percentage and points per shot attempt are both in the bottom 20th percentile among bigs; last year with those metrics, he was in the 59th and 68th percentiles, respectively. He is shooting less frequently and efficiently at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. His free throw percentage has dropped below 70%, and his three-point shooting has faltered from a promising 34% in NOLA to a very uninspiring 26.7% this season.
Randle’s turning the ball over on 13% of possessions. (He’s always been a high turnover guy, but you’d hope that would improve with age and experience in the league.)
It hasn’t. It’s not just the number of turnovers either: it’s the level of stupidity of the turnovers, and other mistakes that don’t show up in the box score like missed rotations or open shooters.
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) December 18, 2019
The play above follows a contested Randle missed three-pointer, in which Frank Ntilikina tapped it back out to him. Randle runs down the shot clock from 14 to two, when he finally gets off a forced shot with open shooters waiting. Though this did result in two shots for Randle, forcing the action like this while facilitating no movement whatsoever have been staples of his offensive game this season. Search Julius Randle on Twitter and you’ll find all sorts of still frames of him surrounded by four defenders while three open shooters wave at him.
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) December 18, 2019
On this play, the read is clearly to R.J. Barrett in the right corner, as Nikola Jokic is forced to sink down once Randle takes that first step towards the paint. Randle may never have considered finishing with his right hand; every player knows the scouting report on Randle says he’s going to force it to his left. Jokic clearly sees it on this play. Even if Randle doesn’t want to make the pass to Barrett (he should want to), a simple side step to the right would leave Randle with an open shot at the rim.
The most frustrating part about watching Randle fumble the ball around is knowing that he’s actually a good passer for a big man. The best aspect of his game has always been his playmaking. Giving him the ball and asking him to create for himself and others 20 feet from the basket, in a situation with no advantage, doesn’t allow him to use that skillset.
When he operated as the roll man last year, Randle was in the 92nd percentile in points per possession, often finding open shooters in four-on-three advantage scenarios. Mitchell Robinson is currently third in the league among qualified players in points per possession as a roll man, and now Randle is in the 35th percentile. He still averages 3.4 assists per game, but every time he makes a good pass, you wonder why he couldn’t make that same pass on the previous five possessions.
This isn’t all on Randle. The Knicks’ roster construction hasn’t made sense from the start—he has rarely been put in a position that plays to his strengths. With he and Robinson being best suited as roll men, Randle would be better off running with the second unit and Robinson with the first, so neither has to play with such terrible spacing. Morris at the 4 is something Knicks fans have been asking for all season, and it makes too much sense.
Although Randle is still only 25, this is his sixth season in the league. The weaknesses that plagued him at Kentucky and in his first few years in the league persist. Newsday‘s Steve Popper reported that the Knicks are open to trading Randle at the deadline; they would be smart to call around the league to see if they can get anything of value back for him, though his contract and play this season don’t suggest much of a return. The good news is he’s only on contract for one more season (with team option on the season after that), so any team interested in trading for him wouldn’t have to worry about his contract eating in to their 2021 free agency cap space.
If the Knicks are forced to stick with him because nobody offers more than a second-rounder and contract dumps to match salary, they should use him in a manner more conducive to his success—so he doesn’t look so boneheaded every time he touches the ball.