The New York Knicks‘ status as a real playoff contender will be legitimized by a Julius Randle selection in the NBA All-Star Game.
Randle is knocking on the All-Star Game door after an impressive start to the season. He’s dragging a young Knicks team to the playoffs conversations in a season many analysts thought would be a lottery year.
Randle is in the midst of a career year in the NBA — 23.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 40.7 percent from deep, all career-highs. And more importantly, as Tom Thibodeau pointed out, Randle has impacted winning in New York.
With Randle leading the way, the Knicks have won 14 of their first 30 games, good for the seventh spot in the East. Barring any second-half meltdown, the Knicks are on pace to outplay ESPN‘s projections (24.7 average wins and 2% playoff chances).
Randle’s Herculean effort hasn’t gone unnoticed as he finished seventh in the Eastern Conference frontcourt starters voting — seventh in fans votes, eighth in players votes, and fifth in media votes.
The coaches are set to pick the seven reserves, which will be announced on Tuesday.
Comfortable being uncomfortable
Randle revealed in the Old Man and the Three podcast yesterday that the Knicks executive vice president William Wesley called him in the offseason and asked him what he needs to go to the next level.
His response foreshadowed what is happening right now: “I need a coach who will push me and hold me accountable.”
Tom Thibodeau is what Randle has ordered. But he got more than what he bargained.
Kenny Payne, the man responsible for whipping Randle and a slew of Kentucky big men into becoming an NBA lottery pick, also came on board.
“One of the things that I told the Knicks when they were considering Kenny is that: ‘Understand now, if you want to see what Julius can be — heâ€™s a good guy because they have a great relationship and Kenny will push him and make him uncomfortable until heâ€™s comfortable being uncomfortable.’ You know how itâ€™s done,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told Empire Sports Media via zoom call.
Calipari also sold Payne to the Knicks as the key to unlocking their other underwhelming Kentucky product.
“And I also told them Kevin Knox, who was playing really good early, youâ€™re gonna find out what he is,” Calipari said.
For the early part of the season, when injuries ravaged the Knicks, Knox had his moments. At one point, he was leading the league in corner three-pointers. However, it was short-lived as the team got healthy and Knox got buried under the Knicks’ new-found depth.
“Theyâ€™re not playing [Kevin] as much because theyâ€™re trying over guys to play snippets and trying to figure out whoâ€™s who. But I think itâ€™s been great,” Calipari said.
Big man’s whisperer
At Kentucky, Payne was the good cop to Calipari’s bad cop. In New York, Payne does the dirty work for Thibodeau.
Payne is always on the ears of the Knicks’ big men. Clips of him personally training the Knicks’ frontcourt — from Randle to Mitchell Robinson and Obi Toppin — went viral in the offseason. Oftentimes, on the MSG broadcast, you catch him in the pregame, stretching out Randle and assisting in his shootaround. During the games, you see him barking instructions or explaining the game situations to players from the sidelines.
Randle’s reunion with Payne made his transformation under the very detailed and hard Thibodeau coaching more effective.
“Julius is having an All-Star year. And the Knicks, if they stay in this playoff hunt, and theyâ€™re in there, thereâ€™s no reason — Julius in the biggest market had averaged in double-double just dragging the team and motivating his team and doing what heâ€™s doing — for that not to happen for him personally,” Calipari said.
If it does happen, thanks in large part to Payne.
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