He won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year. That’s a good thing, by the way. That’s a sign of status. When’s the last time Kevin Durant snuck up on anyone, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Kawhi Leonard? You reach a certain point of accomplishment, it’s no longer about fooling folks. It’s about honoring your talent.
Julius Randle honored his talent all across the 72-game regular season last year. He’d invested hundreds of hours of sweat equity in an extended offseason back home in Dallas, vowed to make people in New York forget his pedestrian first year as a Knick, then did so much more than that.
And it wasn’t just the gaudy numbers — 24.1 points, 10.6 boards, 6.0 assists, 41.1 percent 3-point shooting — or the second-team all-NBA nod, or the All-Star nod, or the Most Improved Player Award that confirmed this. It was what other players saw, specifically players on other teams who maybe had written Randle off as a gifted guy with distinct ceiling.
And who had their minds changed.
“You can tell when someone’s been living in the gym and working on his game,” Kemba Walker said Monday. He is Randle’s teammate now, and his chief mission will be to assist in helping boost Randle another rung up the ladder of stardom. He was a Celtic last year. But he could see clearly what was happening with No. 30 on the Knicks.
“He improved so much,” Walker said. “His game is on the money. I love to see guys get better and he really turned it on, and I’m looking forward to being out there with him. I love the way he carries himself, he works super hard. He’s a leader which I love.”
“He’s just a dog,” he said, which is about the highest available praise, one high-achieving pro to another.
Of course everyone knows the plot twist that altered 2020-21. Randle himself doesn’t run away from it. As superb as he was in the regular season, he scuffled across all five playoff games with the Hawks — the first five postseason games he ever participated in. He averaged six fewer points, shot a stunning 29.8 percent from the floor, seemed rattled.
“He had to find his way,” Derrick Rose, back to share the point guard duties with Walker, said. “Every player has his own road. Even [Michael Jordan], who couldn’t beat Detroit at first. He’ll get there. He’s a worker.”
Randle, to his credit, owns what happened against Atlanta.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “I overcomplicated things.”
Asked to expound, he said, “I went back and looked at the film. There were maybe a lot of simpler things I could’ve done. Part of that was me being me, putting a lot on my shoulders. I don’t think I made the moment bigger than it was but I wanted to be great in that moment felt like I overcompensated a little bit.”
Randle isn’t wired to dwell on that, though. Given a shorter summer this time around he simplified things the best way he knows how: he went back to work. He went back to the gym. He showed up for media day Monday looking both lean and cut, eager to build on last year’s accomplishments.
“I trust the work I put in,” Randle said.
So do the men around him, the players and coaches who will try to grow upon last season’s successes. It won’t be easy. Walker and Evan Fournier ought to be upgrades over the departed Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock. If RJ Barrett has a year-over-year improvement comparable to the one he enjoyed last year it’ll mean he’s just a few steps away from potential stardom of his own.
Still, the Knicks could be a significantly better team than a year ago and win fewer games, finish lower in the standings, maybe be staring at a play-in game. That is the reality of an unforgiving sport in an unforgiving time. But if they’re to defy all of this — as they did almost weekly a year ago — it’ll be Randle, again, who will be the biggest reason why.
“He’ll continue to get better,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I think he learned a lot from the playoffs.
“The thing I love about Julius is he’s a gym rat. He’s in sometimes two or three times a day. So with that type of commitment, you’re always going to get better. He’s committed to improving and he’s never satisfied. We want a team full of guys like that.”
If they’re smart, they’ll all follow Randle’s lead. If they do? The Knicks were full of surprises last year. A few more would be more than welcome this time around, too.
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