Julius Randle and the New York Knicks are making each other tick

The 19-20 New York Knicks were a huge source of frustration for the loyal fans at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks were rudderless and a tough RJ Barrett rookie year meant that fans found more frustrations with players on the roster, than hope. One man who suffered from this, was Julius Randle.

Randle was a divisive figure. Most were frustrated with his isolation tendencies and his poor assist to turnover ratio, but they disagreed upon the reasoning. Some blamed Randle’s tunnel-vision, while some blamed the awful roster construction and schematic structure put in place by David Fizdale. It was Fizdale after all, whose response to people questioning the Knicks play-style, was ‘ I don’t hear anybody b-tching about Houston isolating, they hold the ball the whole game but they score 1,000 points’. In a way, this quote at the latter part of Fizdale’s regime summarised the issues Randle had. He was treated as an elite isolation player, and was pushed further into this style of play because of poor floor spacing and a loose system that lacked player movement.

Through 40 games in the first season of the Tom Thibodeau era, Julius Randle is playing like an All-NBA player. His shot has been falling from all over the court, and he has shown patience as a playmaker in setting up the Knicks spot-up shooters. He’s built key partnerships with RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley who are the only perimeter players along with a vastly improving Frank Ntilikina that matter in the medium to long term on this roster.

Randle’s all round game has improved, but the most important development in his game  has been his improvement as a scorer, both from mid-range and in the post. This is leading to harder closeouts, which allows the Knicks to run motion around him. Playmaking is generally a misunderstood part of Basketball analysis. Being an excellent passer can of course create advantages, but playmaking becomes easier the better you are at scoring. Passing doesn’t necessarily matter if you cannot compromise a defense with your scoring. Randle is reaping the rewards of this reality under Tom Thibodeau.

Randle has improved drastically shooting the ball. He’s in the 97th percentile for frequency of shots coming from the long mid-range area and he’s shooting 49 percent on these shots. This is a 10 percent improvement on last years numbers and comfortably the best of his career. He is shooting 44.2 percent on all jump shots, which is a 10 percent improvement on his numbers from last season.  He’s also surprisingly shooting over 40% on threes. This gravity is a huge requirement for the Knicks to run offense as they lack a floor spacing big next to him and they also lack consistent ball handlers. Everything the Knicks do hinges on Randle being a good scorer.

In terms of usage, Randle ranks 6th amongst all centers. Behind Nikola Jokic, Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid, Nikola Vucevic and Anthony Davis. Randle has justified this usage with shooting improvements. He’s been fluid on the interior and is a worthy recipient of the double teams that get thrown his way. He’s been downright elite as an individual scorer on the year, as shown below.

He gets Clint Capela in space, and shows confidence to shoot a step-back jumper over him. He’s playing with supreme confidence and he’s starting to take and make more difficult shots. He shot 35 percent on pull-up jumpers under David Fizdale and Mike Miller, he’s shooting 53 percent on them under Tom Thibodeau. Again, the shooting improvement is everything for Randle.

Randle’s confidence as a scorer helps the Knicks frontcourt construction. He plays 93 percent of his minutes at the power forward. Due to his power and fluidity, he should theoretically dictate the matchup to be the opposition center, but this becomes difficult if a team is playing small as the Knicks have vertical athletes playing at the center position which creates lob angles and interior spacing. Randle on a smaller power forward is often game over; see below as he powers John Collins down for a fluid post-hook attempt.

Randle’s improvements have not all been influenced by internal factors. Tom Thibodeau has set up an excellent environment and atmosphere for him to thrive. As noted, David Fizdale’s offense was awful. It wasn’t necessarily the number of isolations that were the issue as the per game number is actually the same this year as it was last year. The issue was, the isolations and post-ups were of low quality because of poor offensive sets, poor lineups, cramped floor spacing and questionable off-ball movement.

Using Randle at the elbow and high post isn’t some innovative concept. Most expected this to be his role. Even last year, David Fizdale told reporters he wanted to use Randle as a point forward. Point forwards need to be surrounded with smart spacing and cutting to optimise their skillsets, which is where the staff failed for the majority of last season.

Randle’s assist to usage percentage ranks in the 86th percentile amongst big men. It was in the 54th percentile last year. This improvement is both based on his scoring improvement simplifying the playmaking, but also the system put in place for him.

Assists for big men seem to fall into two categories. They are either schemed assists such as passing to someone on a delay set or a dribble hand off, or a reactive read to what the defense is showing you. The elite all-time passers such as Nikola Jokic, Chris Webber and Arvydas Sabonis are proactive passers who throw passes before the defense has rotated, but this is a rare skill. Both of the common types of assists are highly evident in watching Randle’s tape which is why credit needs to go to both the player and the coaching staff.

Below is a schemed assist that showcases some of what the Knicks have done to avoid hero-ball and run a more motion-based scheme.

This is called Delay-Chicago. Delay is merely the name of a set where the big man handles the ball at the top and has two players either side of him. Chicago is an action where a ball handler receives a hand-off from a big but is coming off a screen before doing so. It’s a highly common action used for any teams that have ball handling-big men, and is super effective with a scorer of the prowess of Randle. The Jazz overplay the hand-off so Barrett and Randle enter a pitch action for a wide-open mid-range jumper. Nothing flashy, but the sort of schematic stuff that wasn’t relevant for New York last year.

On the play above, the Knicks run a simple ghost screen action into a hand-off. This is always a good set to test bigs who aren’t great on the perimeter as they have to stay attached to the perimeter player, and then recover out on a hand-off. Tom Thibodeau gives Julius Randle the license to thrive as an individual scorer but the major difference between this year and last year, is that there is an actual scheme in place that Randle has to follow. Thibodeau will not allow the ball to stick, other players get involved and there is good spacing which is optimised by smart actions.

Another area the Knicks have improved is in the cuts they make off the ball, especially when Randle is in the post. Last year it seemed as if players just weren’t coached on where to be without the ball. They either fell into the trap of clearing out one side of the floor for post-ups, or having players just stand around.

Spacing on post-ups is vastly misunderstood, and that is summarised by the play above. Payton’s cut means Oubre can’t help as a nail defender on Julius Randle. James Wiseman is anchored to the paint as Nerlens Noel isn’t a threat from mid-range. Payton’s cut occupies defenders and opens up the turn for Randle. Simultaneously, Noel curls back towards the rim which occupies the tag man, and Alec Burks is wide open for three. This is simple stuff but not everything has to be complicated. Being on the perimeter does not equate to spacing, spacing is optimised with smart positioning and cutting. When you lack perimeter guys like the Knicks do, this smart positioning becomes even more essential, which is where Thibodeau and his staff deserve credit.

The other side of Randle’s playmaking is that he is being aggressive and creating easy looks for his team-mates. His newfound gravity is a part of this but he is generally just attacking more decisively because the system in place gives him a quality canvas to work with.

On this play, Julius Randle receives the ball on a pick-and-pop. Marcus Morris doesn’t close out particularly hard, which generally can be a problem for a big who relies on closeouts. Randle shows a powerful move to his right and forces a rotation, and makes a controlled pocket pass into Mitchell Robinson for the dunk. Once again, watch the cutting from the perimeter players. At the time Randle makes the pass, there are multiple players open on the perimeter. No one is standing around watching, they are making smart cuts to optimise possessions.

Generally, Randle has been highly decisive when attacking the baseline. The difference this year is the Knicks do a better job of clearing out a side for him to attack from. Once again, this is done by cutting and movement. A player with Randle’s freakish athleticism and handle only needs a small opening, and then that’s when his interior spacing is optimised. The first part of this is smart cutting and clearing out some kind of an opening for him, shown below.

Randle gets space cleared for him when the post entry pass maker cuts to the perimeter. Mitchell Robinson is at the dunkers spot but Thaddeus Young knows of his fluidity so is watching. When Randle destroys Daniel Gafford, Young comes across, Robinson cuts which takes the tag man, and there’s a wide open three for Alec Burks. This play showcases everything that has made Randle so good this year. He is being given openings by smart player movement, he is attacking decisively, and the presence of a rim runner next to him is enough interior spacing to create open threes. Spacing is not merely given by having five shooters, it is given by movement and causing rotations.

Randle’s ideal role is likely as a mismatch four. With teams going small, Randle can often wreak havoc against a smaller power forward because he is too powerful for them. Some teams are equipped to mark him man to man such as Miami, but so many aren’t. He is a double team creator because he is often defended by a power forward because of his pairing with a rim running center.

Randle has utilised the gravity and attention he gets in an important way, he has improved greatly at setting up spot-up shooters for looks. He’s great at reading where double teams are coming from and where his team-mates will have the cleanest look from.

This is the other type of assist he is getting as he excels as a scorer. He capitalises on the gravity he receives, and dishes it to team-mates for open threes. Tom Thibodeau’s use of delay sets and early offense hand-offs are a huge reason the opportunities are available to him, but the opportunities are of a higher quantity because he is excelling as a scorer. He’s averaging 5.5 assists per game. He’s fourth among NBA centers in potential assists per game. That puts him with the other elite initiating bigs in Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis and Bam Adebayo. Potential assists aren’t a popular stat but it’s a good indicator of an offensive role and how much of a hub someone is.

The question everyone keeps coming back to, is what can stop Randle? The answer is likely that his mid-range numbers take a dip. His efficiency for his volume from that area is absurdly high. 40% from beyond the arc puts him along with the elite shooting big men in the NBA. This is the only time he has been there. His ability to keep pulling off this modern Chris Webber role at an all-NBA level hinges on the mid-range shots falling. From a team perspective, Tom Thibodeau’s teams have generally relied on perimeter shots coming from within the flow of an offense. In laymen terms, this means they rely on double teams to create perimeter shots. Teams with the personnel to single up on Julius Randle can cause the Knicks issues. These are the two things to monitor with regards to analysing whether his performance can stick.

Overall, Randle looks to be a player that can elevate the Knicks to be a playoff team. He’s playing with more decisiveness and the Knicks simple yet effective motion offense is preventing him from reverting to the tunnel vision tendencies that plagued him under David Fizdale and Mike Miller. This all-round excellence has Randle playing his best ever ball, and the Knicks can go as far as his new-found jump-shooting prowess takes them.

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