“He’s Our Engine:” Julius Randle Deserves Most Improved Player Recognition with Knicks


Julius Randle has dramatically improved his play with the Knicks this season and the results have come with it. (Courtesy of Twitter)

The New York Knicks are writing one of the most compelling stories of the 2020-21 NBA season by reigniting a basketball mecca, long parched of substantial success, which has earned them respect from the entire league. Under head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks are now that one gritty defensive team that nobody wants to face. Recently the rest of their game has been coming together, resulting in a hot streak of eight straight victories and an overall record of 33-27 which is fourth-best in the Eastern Conference. Like any other storyline, there have been some ups and downs, but it feels like the Knicks have hit their climax. The only question is how long it will last.

Among the important characters, the most emphatic fan-favorite has been forward Julius Randle. In his second year with the Knicks, the former Los Angeles Lakers draft pick has brazenly become, as Tom Thibodeau calls him, “the team engine” on a relatively young roster that has discovered its potential. This potential partially stems from how Randle has excelled as a leader, establishing the culture and inspiring his teammates to perform at their best through his stellar performances. Like the 2,000 raucous fans at the Garden, the Knicks have rallied around their teammate and relied on him to lead them to higher plateaus. 

“I’m glad that we got the guy that we have,” said Tom Thibodeau about Randle’s impact after the Knicks victory Sunday over the New Orleans Pelicans. “Julius is our engine. He makes big play after big play, commands a lot of attention and makes everyone better.” Thibodeau’s comments came after Randle’s 33 points, one rebound, 10 assists and five steals, his fourth consecutive 30-point performance making him the first Knicks player to accomplish that feat since Carmelo Anthony in 2014. 

As the final stretch of the season draws near, annual discussions have begun surrounding which players are worthy of being candidates and ultimately named winners of honors like Most Valuable Player, Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year. Julius Randle’s name has certainly been in a few conversations, with the fans at MSG proudly submitting their verbal vote chanting “MVP” when Randle toes the free-throw line. 

It’s highly unlikely that Randle will gain serious consideration for league MVP, given how the voting process is media-driven and therefore biased towards their usual favorites. However, in the race for Most Improved Player, Randle is undoubtedly on the ballot. If his incredible performances continue into the playoffs, there should be no debate that he deserves that recognition. 

Following his arrival in New York on July 9, 2019, Randle saw a drop-off in the progress he had made in certain areas of his game in New Orleans. He started 64 games in his first season with the Knicks, in which his field goal and three-point field goal shooting percentages reached their lowest average since his second season with the Lakers. As a result, Randle also saw a two-point decline in his points-per-game average for that season. 

It didn’t help that Julius Randle was surrounded by a comparatively weaker roster that relied on him to be the workhorse and that he had a coaching staff, led by David Fizdale, that had no idea what it was doing. So, when the Knicks switched to the experienced head coach, Tom Thibodeau, and upgraded the roster with some of his cherished players, the underlying pressure was partially lifted off of Randle, and his entire game started coming together. 

Now, Randle has become an asset, tallying 23.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game and leading his team in these categories. He also has raised his three-point shooting percentage to 40.5, which is a new career-high. 

Randle’s high-caliber performances have not only reached the hearts of Knicks fans but have been noticed by the rest of the league. For helping the team reach a 19-18 record heading into the All-Star break, a point of the season in which the Knicks had not had a winning record since 2013, Randle was awarded with enough votes by the NBA coaches to make his first All-Star Game appearance as an East reserve. The honor was momentous for the Kentucky product because it not only fulfilled a dream but legitimized the potential he has been showing with the Knicks this season. 

If Randle’s stat lines and his All-Star recognition aren’t enough to consider him an “improved player,” we should look at the numerous records he has already set or matched as a Knicks this season. 

Randle became the first Knick to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the first five games of a season. Most recently, Randle made double history in the Knicks’ 117-109 win over Dallas, becoming the first Knick since Carmelo Anthony to record multiple 40-point games in a season and the first Knick since Bernard King to have a game with 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. 

Julius Randle is having the best season of his career. He is establishing himself as the x-factor of an exciting Knicks team that is vying for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference at just 26 years old. He is endorsed by his coaches and teammates, speaking to his talent. In the crossover from one season to the next, he has gone from being the player who drives into traffic and turns the ball over, frustrating fans, to the star who is demanding double teams.

Given the trajectory that Randle’s game has taken over the last several months, he ought to be given the nod for “Most Improved Player.” However, Randle’s bigger goal is to make his first playoff appearance and help the team make a run. Either way, this recognition is the last thing that he’s earned. There’s a popular belief that the NBA is better when the Knicks are good, and partially because of Julius Randle’s play, the Knicks are once again there.

Therefore, just as the Knicks fans have been chanting “MVP” to the ceiling of Madison Square Garden, so should the voters be checking off Randle’s name on the MIP ballot.