The NBA All-Star Game, quite often, looks the same from year-to-year. The league has made some welcome changes in recent years with the captains format and Elam Ending, but the games themselves almost always follow a similar path, where for three quarters everyone has fun and throws crazy lobs and take 35-foot shots before getting serious about winning in the fourth quarter if it’s close. Some games are more fun than others, but they are rarely the most exciting or fun part of the weekend’s festivities.
There is, however, one thing that I love about the game. It is always extremely cool to see players make it to All-Star for the first time, something that is especially true when it’s a veteran guy who has cut their teeth for years and get rewarded for a breakout campaign. It’s great when a young, budding star makes it for the first time and you can tell it obviously means a ton to them, but think of, say, Rudy Gobert last year after he was literally moved to tears the year prior over missing out.
One thing that can get lost amid all of the discourse around basketball is that, despite the fact that they’re bigger and faster and stronger than everyone else, the people who play the games are still humans. They experience the human emotions we all do, and those feelings are not always reciprocated by all of us in the world of sports fandom and media. It is cool to see good things happen to people, especially when that someone has done things The Right Way™ and finally sees their hard work pay off.
This year, there are a number of players making strong cases for being a first-time All-Star, but few have established a case as strong as Julius Randle, who has been sensational in his seventh NBA season and second for the New York Knicks.
“It’d be amazing, man,” Randle recently told Sopan Deb of the New York Times of possibly making his first All-Star Game. “You put in a lot of work and sacrifice and dedication to your craft. So for you to receive those accolades or whatever it may be and be recognized as such would be a great feeling … and especially as a Knick.”
There seems to be one or two guys in every NBA season who get a push from their teammates to make the All-Star Game, which then translates to pieces like this being written about how they deserve to make the All-Star Game, which leads to more players speaking, and more pieces written, the cycle continues on unabated. The thing is that those players can oftentimes have cases the feel pretty fringe-y — sure, they have a case to make the game, but they’re not objectively someone who has played at that level.
Randle, I would argue, is not just one of those stories. As the leader of the overachieving and wonderfully frisky New York Knicks, which currently sit at 14-16 and are in the Eastern Conference morass that simultaneously has them in striking distance of a top-4 seed and at risk of falling out of the play-in tournament picture altogether, Randle has amplified all of the stuff that has made him such an intriguing player over the course of his NBA career. He’s averaging career-best marks in scoring (23.2 points per game), rebounding (10.9 boards a night), playmaking (5.5 assists per game), and three-point shooting (40.7 percent from deep). The only player to put up this sort of season is named Larry, and it ain’t Hughes or a Nance. When the Knicks need something to happen, he is given the basketball and given license to cook, something that he’s done rather well this season.
What a night for Randle! 🎯
📊 44 PTS, 9 REB, 7 3PM pic.twitter.com/acwIG4WEwQ
— NBA TV (@NBATV) February 16, 2021
Randle has done two things especially well this season in this role as the lynchpin of the Knicks’ offense. For one, he’s really tapping into his playmaking skills in a way he never has been asked to before. Randle’s never been a bad passer by any stretch of the imagination — he’s always shown off the ability to make a quality pass here and there, but with the Knicks’ struggles with consistent point guard play this season, Randle has shouldered quite the playmaking load. Randle is tops on the squad in assist percentage (25.1 percent, putting him in the 95th percentile of all bigs, per Cleaning the Glass) while the only Knick with a higher Assist-to-Usage ratio is Derrick Rose, who has played five games in New York. On top of that, Rose’s is in the 18th percentile of all guards in this metric, while Randle is in the 85th percentile of bigs.
One of my favorite things about watching Randle play is how clever he is as a passer. He’s someone who has some nights where he gets a little sloppy, ad he’s not the kind of guy who will consistently whiz the kind of home run-style passes that only the LeBrons and Lukas of the world are capable of pulling off.
What Randle is good at is realizing the gravity he holds on the basketball court, particularly when he gets near the rim, and dumping a — and please read this in your thickest possible soccer announcer voice — cheeky little pass to someone. Watch the first pair of clips here, as Cleveland’s defense gets pulled in and Randle, realizing that their selling out on him opened things up for someone else, turns down his potentially good look for a great look elsewhere.
28 PTS | 12 REB | 11 AST pic.twitter.com/c9G4xbaNSY
— NBA (@NBA) December 30, 2020
The funny thing about this is the whole “gets near the rim” part, insofar as Randle just isn’t doing that as much this year. In years past, it has not been uncommon for Randle to get the ball and turn into a fullback, lowering his shoulder and trying to bowl through opponents as he chucks up an ugly lefty hook/runner through traffic that does not go in. At 6’8 and 250 pounds with a good bit of bounce to him, it’d always looked a bit weird when he’d do this.
So instead, Randle is doing something entirely different: He’s shooting more midrange and threes than ever and, as a result, attempting fewer shots from inside of 10 feet than ever. Sorting out his rookie campaign, when he was injured 14 minutes into his first game and did not play again, 73.3 percent of Randle’s shot attempts are twos this year, a career-low. We can probably credit pre-injury Mitchell Robinson for taking up space, but just 20.8 percent of Randle’s shots are within three feet, again a career-low. The 20 percent of shots he’s taken from 3-10 feet? You guessed it, a career low.
His shot profile is made up of 32.6 percent midrange/long twos — 10 feet out to the three-point line — and 26.7 percent threes. He’s taking tons and tons of jumpers and is he’s knocking them down at an impressive clip. In order: Randle is making 48.4 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet (second-best mark of his career), 48.6 percent of his shots from 16 feet out to the three-point line (career-best), and as previously mentioned, a career-high 40.7 percent of his threes. While he’s not Ray Allen, Randle’s shooting form has always looked decent, and this year, he’s traded in a bunch of the haphazard drives through crowded lanes for jumpers. Camping out in the corner has been more of a staple in his game, as a quarter of his attempted triples are corner threes, and he’s knocking them down at a 45.7 percent clip.
Calling Randle the Knicks’ best player this season has been an understatement. He’s leading them in basically every metric that tries to measure a player’s impact on the game (PER, win shares, box plus/minus, VORP), and when Randle is on the floor, things just click for them. Even with intangible stuff like “he plays hard,” Randle sets the tone for New York, the rest of the team responds, and as a result, the team has outperformed expectations so far this season.
A few worthy guys in the East are going to be left out when the coaches make all of their selections. You can be all but assured that Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum will take up two of the frontcourt spots, leaving one guaranteed frontcourt position open for the group of Randle, Bam Adebayo, Jerami Grant, and Domantas Sabonis. With the backcourt talent of the East — Zach LaVine, James Harden, Jaylen Brown, and, Trae Young are all in the mix for a reserve spot — it’s possible there will only be one and maybe no Wild Card spots for the frontcourt.
Even so, on his own merits, though, Randle stands as a deserving selection for the game. Whether you go off of the statistical case, impact of winning, or the narrative, he has what voters are looking for. The way he has elevated a frisky Knicks team from “projected high lottery side” to “knocking on the door of a top-4 playoff spot” by turning into a tone setter and alpha dog is something that deserves some sort of recognition. Randle has been one of the best players and one of the best stories in the league this year. Giving him a well-earned All-Star nod would be a good way to reflect that, but whether he makes it or not, his effort this season should be commended.