Julius Randle is just getting started

Published May 27, 2021, 10:58 AMJon Carlos Rodriguez

All the hard work Julius Randle did behind the scenes made him the league's Most Improved Player. And he's only scratching the surface.

What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the name Julius Randle? 

It’s okay if your answer isn’t “work ethic.” He isn’t exactly known for that, and there are other things that are deeply associated with the New York Knicks big man.

A Los Angeles Lakers’ lottery pick. The broken leg on opening night. The future of LA. Can’t build a franchise around him. Beyblade. Lefty who can’t shoot 3s. Great talent. No defense. Strong on offense. All these have been connected to Randle’s name at one point or another, a healthy mix of both positive and negative reviews.  

If you haven’t been closely following Randle’s career, it’s easy to identify him as just another talented 6-foot-9, 20-10 guy, who’ll bounce around the league and land on some team as a third scoring option and dependable rebounder. That could’ve been it. A respectable ceiling with not a lot of people talking about him and his contributions to the game.

Only, that’s not what Julius Randle is all about.

When he signed with the Knicks in 2019, it was met with neither a thunderous applause that shook Madison Square Garden nor a celebratory parade down Fifth Avenue. After the Knicks missed out on yet another big name free agent signing, getting Randle was...okay.

He was then a strong offensive player not known for his defense, someone you can’t build a franchise around, a lefty who can’t shoot 3s, with tendencies of spinning his way into a turnover. He wasn’t even a 20-10 guy (he was close though, averaging 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in his stint with the New Orleans Pelicans).
His first season with the Knicks pretty much confirmed all preconceived notions. The tragic season ended with Randle underwhelming, and the Knicks getting no invite to the bubble.

Randle was instantly thrown into the crossroads: a huge contract, a lost season, a deteriorating reputation, and a whole lot of time to spend. He chose to spend it the best way possible.

Meeting up with his trusted trainer in his hometown in Dallas, Randle went to work. Like, work work. This meant going to the gym at 5 a.m. to work on his shot. This meant going to the gym at 6 a.m. to work on his footwork. He did weight training, conditioning, and shooting. Then he shot some more. He did this every day, for nine months. 

What Randle was preparing for was a second shot in New York, to erase what was already a forgettable first season as a Knick. But what he got was a second shot at life.

His second season came with big changes in management and a bigger change in coaching staff. The Knicks hired Tom Thibodeau, a veteran coach whose whole M.O. can be summed up in six words: “The magic is in the work.”

The Randle and Thibs partnership was an immediate hit. Here you have two people who are obsessed with the grind. In one of his interviews, Randle recalled going into the practice facility for some late night runs when he saw the light from Thibs’ office still burning, which was a terrific sign of good things ahead. 

With Thibs, you get a mentor who will push you to your limits. With Randle, you get a franchise leader who wants to be pushed. The result of that, in plain numbers, looked like this:

2019-2020 Julius Randle
19.5 points
9.7 rebounds
3.1 assists
27.7 percent in 3s

2020-2021 Julius Randle
24.1 points
10.2 rebounds
6.0 assists 
41 percent in 3s

The result of this, in the bigger picture, is that the Knicks are a playoff team again, after not being a playoff team for the past seven years. An improvement? Try "most improved".

Check history and this is what Thibs does: helping Derrick Rose leap to MVP status; pushing Joakim Noah to become Defensive Player of the Year; guiding Jimmy Butler to fulfill his All-Star potential. Now, because he wanted it, it was Randle’s turn. 

In just one year under Thibodeau, Randle was named an All-Star for the first time in his career. He also became the first player to win the Most Improved Player award with New York.

“When you look at the trajectory of my career, every year I’ve taken steps forward to get better and improve my game and that’s what I’m proud of. For me, I think this award just embodies who I am as a person,” Randle said. 

When we talk about glow-ups, what's usually discussed are the surface-level things that we see on the highlight reels. He shoots better now. He can pass better. He moves quicker on the floor. 

What isn’t talked about much is sweat equity. The early, long hours at the gym. The silence of work ethic. The obsession to get better.

With the way things are going, this won’t be the last time we’ll hear about Julius Randle. Bet on that.