Last season, Julius Randle’s first with the New York Knicks, the former University of Kentucky forward earned an unusual nickname from New Yorkers: Beyblade. If you’ve never heard of it, a Beyblade is a toy top that spins at a high speed and collides with other Beyblade tops to determine which will be the last one standing.
Randle was prone to overuse his spin move like a Beyblade, often spinning right into opponents’ defense. He was the face of another disastrous Knicks season, and while he logged respectable statistics with averages of 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, the Knicks finished with just 21 wins. This past offseason, Knicks fans would have welcomed a Julius Randle trade. But if the Knicks traded Randle today, the move would provoke outrage from fans.
Randle completely overhauled his game this offseason. Until this season, Randle mostly scored close to the basket, never taking fewer than 36% of his shots at the rim in any season. Randle had never been much of a three-point — or even midrange — shooter. All of that has changed this season, though.
Randle is taking only 17.1% of his shots at the rim, which at first glance seems pretty concerning. But his overall shooting has improved dramatically. Prior to this season, Randle had only one season when he shot better than 30% from the three-point range. This season, he’s shooting a scorching 42.1%, good for 22nd in the entire league and better than sharpshooters Zach LaVine and Jamal Murray.
It’s not just the three-pointers, though. Randle has also become prolific from the midrange. He’s shooting 44% at 10 to 16 feet from the basket and almost 42% from 16 feet away from the three-point line. This is not with a small sample size; Randle is taking 35% of all his shots from these midrange areas and shooting 5.3 threes per game. He’s improved his shooting accuracy while also upping his volume, a very tough thing to do in the NBA, although an increasingly common phenomenon.
Randle has also improved his game by creating more of his shots off the dribble, which is even more impactful. Before this season, Randle had been assisted on 40% or more of his baskets every season of his career. This season, only 33.6% of his baskets have come off of assists, a small difference in percentage but large in impact. In addition, only 79.5% of his threes have been assisted, down from his previous career low of 90%. Randle has been a wizard at finding his own shots this season. At times, he even looks like Knicks-era Carmelo Anthony.
It’s a huge improvement, as individual shot creation is the most important skill in the NBA; it’s what separates stars from superstars. Before this season, few would call Randle a star. Now, his statistics have launched him to potential superstar status. Randle is averaging 24.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and a very surprising 5.9 assists per game, with 48% shooting from the field and 42% from the three-point range. While his shooting and shot creation improvements have been key, the increase in assists is just as important.
Randle’s previous career high in assists per game was 3.6, which came four seasons ago. He was lambasted by New York fans last season for his unwillingness to pass the ball, and the stats backed it up; Randle averaged 3.1 assists compared to 3.0 turnovers last season. This season, Randle has doubled his assist total, while his turnovers have only risen to 3.4 per game.
Randle’s court vision has been a joy to watch, especially considering his tunnel vision last season. He’s making passes this year that he wouldn’t have even thought of attempting last season: cross-court jump passes, tough passes out of double teams and pocket passes off of pick and rolls. His shooting has opened up his ability to find open shooters and guys at the rim, and Randle is taking advantage.
First-year Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is known for playing his best players for heavy minutes, and this season has been no different. Randle has made all of these improvements while missing only one game and leading the league in both total minutes and minutes per game. His skill improvement has been incredible, but his improved conditioning has been vital as well. The Knicks need his presence night in and night out, and he has not disappointed.
New York is having its best season in eight years on the back of its newly minted superstar. The Knicks currently have a record of 35-28, have won nine games in a row prior to Monday’s loss to Phoenix and are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. That success cannot only be credited to Randle, but without him, the Knicks would be going nowhere. He may have been called Beyblade last season, but he’s been getting a different chant from the crowds at Madison Square Garden recently: “MVP.” While he likely won’t win that award, there is one that he should win in a landslide: Most Improved Player.
Tim Brennan is a first-year in the McDonough School of Business. Around the Association appears online every other week.