We already knew that New York Knicks big Julius Randle could score and rebound. But few saw him taking the leap to become a point forward.
One of the biggest surprises of the season is that Randle is currently leading the Knicks in assists, averaging more than seven per game. As a member of one of the eight teams to not participate in the bubble, Randle had quite a long offseason to improve his game. So what has led to the emergence of Randle as someone who is now able to create for others?
The first place to look is personnel, considering New York had a massive facelift that could change the way the team plays. Not only was Tom Thibodeau brought in as head coach but Kenny Payne was also added as an assistant coach. Payne, known as the big man whisperer because of his prowess for coaching centers during his 10-year tenure with Kentucky, worked with Randle in college.
Around the time of the hiring, Knicks beat reporter Marc Berman reported that Randle “loves Kenny” and that Payne was a “huge part” of Randle’s early development. Randle tweeted that nobody is “more committed” to the players than Payne.
Kenny Payne is a big man whisperer of sorts. There are a lot of things he does well in terms of developing players and relating to them. This is a good fit for the young bigs on the Knicks.
— David Zenon (@DavidZenon1) August 11, 2020
Payne has described his longtime philosophy as “move like a guard, finish like a big” and his track record is a perfect example.
Former standouts in the frontcourt at Kentucky like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Bam Adebayo have all shown far above-average playmaking skills for their position. Even Randle, who recorded 3.1 assists per game in 2019-20, has had a moderately effective career as a playmaker since coming into the league.
Randle recently spoke about his comfort playing with the ball in his hands (via SNY):
“That’s the thing about basketball, positions are interchangeable, it’s positionless. As long as we’re playing the right way and moving the ball, that’s all that matters.”
During each of his previous four seasons, per Cleaning the Glass, Randle’s assist percentage has ranked in the 86th percentile or better among big men.
While that rate had never been above 20.0 percent, it currently sits at 31.1 percent. That ranks second-best among all players at his position, trailing only Nikola Jokic.
👀 That pass from Julius Randle!
23 PTS, 10 REB, 9 AST (3/3 3PT) in 3 quarters! pic.twitter.com/1MUOkB4FVc
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 30, 2020
Some of the most exciting moments of the year for New York have featured Randle dancing around with dazzling post moves, showing off spins leading into beautiful passes.
Here is what head coach Tom Thibodeau said when he was asked about the playmaking flashes from Randle (via SNY):
“He has a pretty good understanding of his teammates and what their strengths are. And he’s playing unselfishly and that’s probably the biggest thing.”
Thibodeau is absolutely right in noting how unselfish his big man has been. Randle, who passed the ball on 31.3 percent of drives in 2019-20, has now dished on 58.6 percent for draw-and-kick opportunities since the new season began.
Similarly, during his 18 elbow touches so far this season, Randle has taken just four field-goal attempts but has passed the ball 12 times. In fact, operating on the elbow, he has seven assists and just one turnover thus far.
Julius Randle is averaging 7.2 assists and 10.5 rebounds per game.
He’s just fifth player in the last 40 years to average more than 7 dimes and 10 boards thru the first 6 games of a season.
The other four are:
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) January 3, 2021
Meanwhile, not only could reuniting with Payne have lit a spark in Randle, but the focused coaching can help on-court decision-making as well. For example, it seems that the biggest overall difference in year-over-year usage is that Randle is now far more willing to pass out of the double-team.
Randle is currently averaging 9.1 post-ups per game, via NBA.com, which currently ranks as the second-most in the Eastern Conference. One of the reasons that Randle has been successful as a passer is because when he posts up, he consistently draws quite a bit of attention from his opposing defenders.
When that happens, teammates with shooting touch like veteran Reggie Bullock have found a lot of extra space on the perimeter. Bullock recently spoke about what he has seen from his teammate (via SNY):
“[Randle has been] in great position to be able to find other players when they collapse on him on defense. He’s a talented offensive player that’s going to draw double teams. I think this year he’s doing the right thing, finding his teammates, not forcing anything … He’s one of the leaders on this team and we need for him to make plays for others.”
Randle has not always been someone willing to make that pass, which had led to costly turnovers. Before this season, according to our research, Randle had averaged 1.6 post-up passes and 0.4 post-up assists per 36 minutes. The big man opted for a pass on just 32.6 percent of his post-ups.
This year, however, he has been a far more willing distributor out of the post. Randle is currently averaging 4.3 passes and 1.1 assists per 36 during these situations, passing on 54.0 percent of these plays.
Here is how it comes together when it happens during a game:
The pass that he delivered above was particularly impressive, reacting quickly and then finding RJ Barrett in the corner. Randle recently explained that he simply trusts that his teammates will be in the right spots (via SNY):
“We don’t have to second-guess where we’re going to be on the floor. We have great spacing and if the defense is collapsing, I can depend on whoever it is to cut or to be in the right [place] and just make the easy play. We’re all just trying to make the easy play, the right play, and play for each other unselfishly.”
Meanwhile, considering that he is an incredibly physical player as well, Randle has also shown that he is fearless.
Randle has welcomed the chance to post up someone as intimidating as Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and back-to-back MVP, and still find an open man from long range.
Overall, when looking at the most prolific passers last season, few names on the leaderboard will be much of a surprise. The two players with the most were Nikola Jokic (75.2) and Ben Simmons (70.6) while other stars like Luka Doncic (62.4) and LeBron James (62.1) were near the top as well.
Jokic (83.3) still remains in the pole spot so far this year. But considering Randle (69.1) has the third-most thus far, his usage suggests he will likely continue playing with the ball in his hands.
He will need a tighter handle, as he is still turning the ball over far too often. However, as the season progresses, don’t be surprised if Randle keeps putting up unexpectedly high assist numbers.