Knicks’ season hinges on new Randle-Barrett dynamic

Julius Randle finally ended his media blackout Sunday. But it was overshadowed by RJ Barrett’s continued rise. It appears Randle has no qualms and is willing to cede the spotlight to his much younger but capable teammate.

After a 28-point explosion over the Los Angeles Clippers that helped snap the New York Knicks‘ three-game losing skid, Barrett’s usage rate has surged to 27.7 percent since the turn of the new year.

Randle played a complementary role to Barrett, adding 24 points on an efficient 15 shots. It was symbolic of the seismic change in the Knicks’ offensive hierarchy. Randle had seen his usage rate drop to 24.9 in 10 games this month.

“He’s kind of figured out who he is as a player,” Randle said of Barrett. “He’s playing to his strengths, and it makes us a really tough team when he plays like that.”

Barrett started the season with only a 19.9 usage rate as he took a backseat to newcomers Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. But he took a leap every month and has taken over this January as Walker was in and out of the lineup; Fournier battled inconsistency while Randle slumped that led to an ugly public spat with the fans and a $25,000 fine for using profane language.

Where Randle failed as the face of the franchise, Barrett passed it with flying colors. Showing maturity beyond his years, Barrett calmly faced the media and answered the tough questions with candor and humor.

But more importantly, he backed it up with a growing game on the court.

Since boldly declaring not to sleep on the Knicks on New Year’s eve following an ugly road loss to the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder, Barrett has walked the talk.

With Barrett leading the charge, the Knicks started strong in January, winning five of their first eight games before dropping three straight at home. The wire-to-wire win over the Clippers has moved them back to being a .500 team this month.

Over the last 12 games, Barrett is averaging 23.2 points on a 45/40/68 shooting split while adding 6.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists.

In that same span, Randle’s numbers dropped to 16.4 points on a 39/24/72 shooting split but still with a team-leading 10.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists.

“He’s gaining more experience,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said of Barrett. “I think he has a confidence level that comes with preparation. And now he’s been through the league a few times, and I think he’s growing every day. We see it. He’s playing at a better pace, it’s important for him, but it’s [also] important for us.”

Barrett has turned more aggressive, spicing up his offensive moves. He’s starting to have a better read of the defense and not just relying on a straight-line attack.

Despite Randle’s regression, he still commands attention. But unlike in the past, where Barrett just stands in the corner waiting for the pass, the former third overall pick has ditched the passiveness and transformed himself into a constant threat with his aggressiveness.

“I think being comfortable going right, accepting the ice (a side pick-and-roll defense in which the on-ball defender forces the ball-handler toward the sideline) and snaking it, staying going right, and just trying to be aggressive. Like coach [Thibodeau] said, impose your will onto the game,” Barrett explained.

The change in demeanor on the court and his candor on the mic led to this passing of the torch.

This new version of Barrett is what the Knicks hoped for when they selected him behind Ja Morant, who’s now crept into the MVP conversations, and Zion Williamson, who’s dominant when healthy. Tyler Herro, who was drafted 10 picks after Barrett, has threatened to overtake the former Duke star with his strong play off the bench this season for the Eastern Conference leader Miami Heat. Luckily for the Knicks, Barrett has started to turn the corner and appears intent on pressing forward.

“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything so far—just my mindset. I’m always hungry. I’m hungry for more,” Barrett said. “I want more for the team but for myself, as well.”

”If I continue to be aggressive like I’ve been the past couple of games like I was tonight, I think anything’s possible. I wanna continue to be able to make plays like I did today and score and defend and rebound, really do it all out there on the court for the team and kind of be the guy that does whatever the team needs.”

In ending his shooting slump and media blackout, Randle credited Knicks owner James Dolan who foot the bill (paying a $25,000 fine) for not making his star forward available to media in the previous game. The Knicks have avoided a more significant penalty as Randle wasn’t made available for seven straight postgame interviews.

“Honestly, I appreciate Mr. Dolan. He’s great,” Randle said. But the reaction (to the fine) was the team didn’t make me available. All I can do is my job as a player, and the team didn’t make me available. And that’s it.”

Randle intends to move forward from the drama that affected his play and cast a large shadow on the team over the past two weeks.

“For me personally, I try to take every day one at a time. There’s no point in looking back in the past. You learn from the past but there’s no point looking back. I really don’t look ahead to the future because that’s the unknown. For me it’s about taking it day by day, getting better every day. I feel like us as individuals and as a team we took a step forward today. That’s what matters.”

Randle took a step forward to repair his strained relationship with the fans. Barrett took another leap to realizing his star potential.

This new dynamic bears watching as the Knicks play a brutal 10-game stretch with eight on the road beginning tonight’s game in Cleveland.

But Barrett is unfazed and doubled down on his New Year’s eve bold statement.

“We’ve been really good on the road,” Barrett said. “I think that’s one thing about us. Also, we don’t care. I think we could beat anybody. I think we could beat anybody anywhere.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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