This summer, the New York Knicks are staring at crossroads with a big Julius Randle question hanging over their heads.
Randle’s extension worth at least $110 million will kick in next season following a disappointing season.
As his outside shot, the swing skill in his Most Improved Player and All-NBA Second Team campaign last season, has abandoned him, so was his positive demeanor. Inspiration turned into frustration as the season dragged on. His emotions got the best of him, and he knew it.
Then his backup, Obi Toppin, came out popping in the season’s final five games.
Knicks team president Leon Rose, Randle’s former agent, has his work cut out for him this summer.
“Julius is a passionate player. He’s a person who, last year, everything went right. This year things didn’t go right. But he still wound up [as] one of three players to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists,” Rose said in a pre-taped interview before the Knicks’ final game of the season last Sunday.
New York coach Tom Thibodeau still defended Randle from criticisms until the end of the season that started with Bing Bong and then went wrong.
“Well, I don’t know if comfortable, but I think the big thing is, let’s not mistake how talented he is. He didn’t shoot the 3 as well as he did a year ago, but he’s still 20, 10, and five. That’s talent,” Thibodeau said. “That’s a lot of talent.”
The only other two players on that distinguished list are MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic on that list. It’s quite a feat on the surface, but beneath those Randle’s numbers are inefficient shooting and negative vibes that engulfed the team at various points of the season. His contentious relationship with the fans and referees further magnified his down season.
“Things happened on the court. We saw some emotion coming out, saw some things happening. I think it affected his play at times. He felt remorseful for some of those things, as he expressed to the fans in the letter he sent. He kept working and worked through it to the end of the season.”
Rose referred to Randle’s public apology on his Instagram after his infamous ‘thumbs up gesture.’ But he has since deleted that post along with all his Knicks photos except for his Slam Magazine cover shot with RJ Barrett. Randle, 27, is still young but not by NBA standards. He’s already a veteran with eight seasons under his belt. And it’s his third season in New York, so he should already have a grasp of the city and the fan base’s temperament.
“(Randle) was just not comfortable at times. It was just not being comfortable. He gave it his best effort,” Rose said. “The three-point shot just didn’t go like last year, and you had teams keying on him more this year. At the end, he made some adjustments. He carried the burden. I was proud of the fact he did fight through it.”
Randle’s three-point accuracy took a nose dive to 30.8 percent from a career-high 41.1 percent last season. As the season went on, opposing defenses no longer respected his outside shot and left him open. Randle’s confidence took a hit, but to his credit, he adjusted and bullied his way to the basket more after the All-Star break.
Yet his perceived poor body language persisted.
Despite the boos and the growing chants of Obi Toppin’s name, Randle still reiterated his desire to stay in New York before being shut down with a sore quad over the team’s final five games. Rose made the confirmation in last Sunday’s interview.
“Julius loves it here in New York, wants to be in New York,” Rose said.
Can New York love him back the way it did last season? The answer is a resounding yes as long they see a better effort. Thibodeau believes Randle can bounce back.
“I think we had our ups and downs this year and when you’re that type of player, he’s gonna get criticism,” Thibodeau said. “I’m gonna get criticism. That goes with the turf here. So, you deal with it, come back, and use it as motivation. I know one thing: Julius will be in the gym all summer.”
There’s no doubt about that. But the bigger question is will Randle adjust his game to accommodate Toppin?
“For sure, me and Jules actually talked about it. We definitely feel in today’s game that’s a big thing, just because a lot of teams are playing small, a lot of teams want to play fast, shoot 3s, run the floor and just get out in transition,” Toppin said after the Knicks penultimate game in Washington over the weekend. “And I feel like when me and Jules are on the court, we’re definitely playing a lot faster. Either me or Jules can be in the paint, or we can screen and roll.”
“There are so many different things we can do when we’re both on the court. But we’ve definitely talked about it, and hopefully, we’re both back here next year, and we can see that. I feel like we can definitely do some damage in the league if we’re on the court together.”
But the biggest question is, will Thibodeau finally relent to playing them more together?
“I like having a component of being able to downsize,” Thibodeau said. “But the thing is, we lose our defense, so it’s gonna be hard because once you do that, you’re basically committing to outscoring somebody.”
Will Thibodeau’s long-held belief change over the course of the summer?
If not, then something has to give.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo