Julius Randle heard it. How couldn’t he? Late in the fourth quarter of the Knicks’ win over Phoenix on Monday, with Randle at the free throw line completing a 28-point night, an M-V-P chant cascaded down from the rafters. For any player, it’s flattering. For Randle, who a year ago was hearing something a lot different, it meant more.
Said Randle, “It’s good to be on the good side of The Garden.”
Indeed. Randle’s 3½ years in New York have been wild, with the peaks and valleys of a Coney Island roller coaster. He was good in the coronavirus-halted 2019–20 season, his first in New York. He was great the following year, earning an All-Star spot (his first), an All-NBA nod (ditto) while adding the NBA’s Most Improved Player award to his trophy shelf. His numbers last season (20.1 points, 9.9 rebounds) were solid, but his shooting percentages dropped, the Knicks struggled and, during one particularly rough stretch last January, Randle delivered a thumbs-down to fans cheering a Knicks comeback, later explaining it was meant to tell Knicks fans to “shut the f— up.”
“I don’t even remember that,” Randle deadpanned Monday. “That happened?”
Randle probably isn’t the second-team All-NBA player he was in 2020–21. But he’s better than the inefficient player he was last season, too. He’s averaging 24 points. He’s shooting 47% from the floor and 35% from three. He had six assists Monday, including a pair early in the fourth quarter that helped the Knicks stave off a late Suns surge.
“We’re asking him to do a lot,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s scoring, he’s passing, he’s rebounding. He’s playing big minutes. He’s handled it all.”
Evaluating the Knicks’ place among conference contenders has been difficult. They win three straight. They lose three straight. They rip off an eight-game winning streak to start December. They drop five straight toward the end of it. They defend the three-point line … then they don’t. The defense holds five teams under 100 points during the winning streak. Then it gets gashed for 118-plus four times during its late-December losses.
“It’s really not what happens to you; it’s how you respond to what happens to you,” Thibodeau said recently. “The games keep coming. So you want to learn, grow, improve. Learn, grow, improve. And just keep doing it throughout the game. And you know throughout the season there’s going to be ups and downs, and you have to navigate it all.”
But they are in the mix. Monday’s win pushed the Knicks into sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference, a game behind Indiana. Jalen Brunson has been worth every nickel of the four-year, $104 million deal New York gave him last summer. Quentin Grimes and Immanuel Quickley have brought a steady defensive presence to the backcourt. RJ Barrett has started to provide an efficient scoring punch.
And there’s Randle. MVP votes may be tough to gather. All-Star votes will not. Randle averaged 28.3 points and 11.4 rebounds in December. He bumped his three-point shooting up to 36.8%. Randle says he isn’t focusing on an All-Star nod—the competition for the reserve spots figures to be fierce—but admits a second selection would be special.
“You work hard to put yourself in a position to do that,” said Randle. “So it would be amazing. I’d love it. Not necessarily for me, it’s great. But I love to experience it with my family, with both of my sons. My wife. Because they’re the ones who make the true sacrifice of letting me dedicate myself to the game the way I’ve been able to do. Summers and night in, night out. They’ve been the ones making the true sacrifices, so I love to be able to let them enjoy it and see the rewards of it. That’s why it’s important.”
For now, Randle will settle for the adulation from the New York crowd. “It’s really special to hear,” said Brunson. During a live interview after the game, Randle was asked about what was most enjoyable for him during this recent stretch. “Playing in front of the fans at The Garden,” Randle said. “I love it.” After a down season, Randle is rising again.