This isn’t the Julius Randle of two years ago. It’s more like Julius Randle 2.0.
He may be producing similar numbers to that fantastic season when the bruising yet athletic forward led the Knicks to a surprising fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, but he is doing so in a different manner.
“The year two years ago obviously he had a great year and a big part of that, I think, was his shooting,” coach Tom Thibodeau said on Tuesday after practice. “It opened up a lot of things for him. But then I think the league sort of caught up and now I think he’s caught up to what they were doing.”
A major part of that change was a different offensive philosophy under Thibodeau predicated on pace and ball movement, and the arrival of new point guard Jalen Brunson. It meant less isolation for Randle and a new focus on playing uptempo.
Randle is rarely bringing the ball up and pounding it into the floor. Instead, he’s getting transition opportunities, shots by moving without the ball and Brunson’s fast start has taken some of the defense’s focus away from Randle. He’s seeing fewer double-teams and getting more open shots.
“His approach has been totally different,” Derrick Rose said. “The way he’s reading the floor is totally different. His passing has been unbelievable, like getting to spots and not forcing shots and understanding that we’re trying to get up a certain amount of 3’s. He’s finding the shooters.”
He’s also made notable adjustments, in particular arriving for training camp leaner and more prepared to get up and down the floor faster. At the start of camp, Randle spoke of his excitement for this new offensive philosophy and teaming up with Brunson, and he has backed up that talk, producing 17 assists and just four turnovers in the preseason. In three regular-season games, he is averaging 21.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and only 1.7 turnovers.
“I’ll say this: Julius is a tremendous athlete and I know from having coached against him what you don’t want to see is Julius flying up the floor, attacking the rim, playing with speed like he’s playing,” Thibodeau said. “You’d rather defend him stationary with the ball. I think because of that, [since] he knows the different things he’s been through, he wants to play fast, and so I think that’s huge. He can help sell it to the rest of the team when he’s moving the way he’s moving. It gets the whole team moving that way.”
Late in Monday’s victory over the Magic the biggest change for the Knicks was on display. A 14-point lead had been cut to six with 4:28 left in the fourth quarter. In past years, it was obvious where the ball was going — to Randle in isolation. Not in this instance. The Knicks ran a high screen-and-roll with Brunson, and it resulted in a made Brunson jumper in which he also drew a foul that iced the game. The Knicks have become less predictable.
“For [Jalen] to take that pressure off me is huge,” Randle said. He added, in general about his play: “I’m just trying to lose myself in the team. Lean on guys like [Brunson]RJ [Barrett], just play for my team. The only thing that matters is winning.”
Brunson, an ego-less lead guard known for making the right play, has had a major impact on Randle. The two started to develop chemistry even before training camp, both of them spending plenty of time in August and early September at the MSG Training Center. It shows. They have played well together, registering a combined plus-30 rating this season.
Brunson recently had Randle and other teammates over to watch a big Eagles-Cowboys game. Brunson roots for the Eagles and Randle is a Cowboys fan. A recent press conference featuring the two players ended with them being asked who will win the NFC East. They both laughed and talked trash about the other’s team.
The only thing the two stars don’t see eye-to-eye on appears to be their favorite football teams.