Everything New York Knicks did in the offseason revolved around Julius Randle.
They retained the core that accentuated Randle’s ascending talent. They brought in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to shield him from being ganged up again in a potential playoff run this season.
The Knicks eliminated any doubt by locking him up to a lucrative, four-year extension. The Knicks view Randle as their star. The team revolves around him, much like how Milwaukee Bucks built a championship team around Giannis Antetokounmpo from the ground up. Or how LeBron James’ teams have always revolved around him. And how the Brooklyn Nets are now operating with Kevin Durant.
That’s just how it works in the NBA galaxy — where a team revolves around their biggest star as their sun. In return, their stars shine a light on the players, who act as the planets in their solar system.
Randle finally acknowledged the elephant in the room after his tentative play impacted the Knicks’ uneven start to their season, which comes with heavy expectation. A week after Derrick Rose gave him unsolicited advice, Randle finally approached him.
Randle took a step forward in growing into his new role after a lengthy, heart-to-heart talk with Rose following their third straight home loss on Sunday against the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I had a long talk with Derrick [Rose] after the game because I’m an introverted person too,” Randle said after he led the Knicks to a much-needed win in Philadelphia on Monday night.
Rose, the youngest MVP in the league, was once in Randle’s shoes. During his time in Chicago, where the Bulls revolved around him, Rose, who was quiet in nature, struggled to assert himself into the leadership role.
“I’m kind of like lead by example, my actions and stuff like that,” Randle said. “And he’s telling me how it took him a long time to figure it out.”
There wasn’t an inkling that Randle is an introvert as he was always candid in interviews and always talked the walk. But if you closely paid attention to other Knicks players’ interviews, it was always Rose, Walker, and Taj Gibson who the younger players name as the veterans they talk to almost every day.
Randle is still leading the team in scoring and other important statistics. But his efficiency took a hit as he sometimes second-guessed his new teammates and accommodated RJ Barrett’s rapid growth.
Evan Mobley, Cavaliers’ rookie stud, dropped a career-high 26 points on 11 of 15 shooting, nine boards, and five assists against him. Randle struggled to score 19 points on 17 shots. He added seven assists, but he was a team-worst minus-32. In short, Randle got badly outplayed by a rookie.
Before he approached Rose, Randle owned up to his failings as a leader. Randle is the undisputed leader of the team even though coach Tom Thibodeau refuses to officially name him as the team captain, perhaps as a sign of respect to Rose and Walker.
“I’ll take accountability,” Randle said after the loss. “I’ve got to be better. As the leader of the team, I’ll be better. I gotta talk more. Play with more energy.”
Nothing new. Randle always talks the walk during interviews.
But on Monday night, there was a visible change in Randle’s demeanor that changed the Knicks’ tenor. He talked the walk then walked the talk.
Randle was visibly more vocal. He huddled the team on the court at the height of Philadelphia’s uprising. He led the way on both ends of the floor down the stretch to carry the Knicks to a gut-wrenching 103-96 win over the shorthanded Sixers.
Randle scored 10 of his game-high 31 points in the final 4:46 and was locked in defensively to avert what should have been a deflating loss. Especially against a team that is missing its top stars Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and their ace perimeter defender Matisse Thybulle due to health and safety protocols.
“It’s just getting out of your comfort zone, growing as a person, as a leader,” Randle said. “The next step for me is just being a little bit more vocal with my teammates, talking, and making sure we’re staying together and telling each other what we see out there.”
Randle finally stopped acting like the Earth or Mercury and started embracing being the sun of this team.
The best leaders always understand the need the walk the talk. But not all people, or in this case, not all players, are wired to be inspired by that. There is power in language that is so unique to hoopers who can only understand each other.
Michael Jordan had a unique language that compelled his Bulls teammates to rise with him. Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, Randle’s mentor in his early days, was wired like Jordan. Their concept of winning is different from the rest. They were leaders that think differently about their craft and invariably talk about it differently as well.
But in these times when player empowerment and inclusivity are strong in the league, the type of sustainable leadership is the one that harnesses the power of language and emphatically uses that as a form of communication to remind everyone what really drives success.
“I want him to be vocal,” Thibodeau said. “I want everyone to use their voice. That’s a big part of leadership. But I also want them backing it up with their actions, and actions will always reflect one’s priorities. And so, when they’re doing the right things, good things are going to happen.
It didn’t matter that it was an early November win against a contender that was a shell of themselves. Yes, the Knicks needed Thibodeau’s 400th career win but what really mattered, in the end, was Randle’s gains in his leadership crash course that will help them down the road.
“I think we took a step forward today — all of us learning and figuring each other out and stuff like that,” Randle said. “It was really good. We just got to keep building on it.”
The NBA is a star’s league. The Knicks did not have any at the start of team president Leon Rose’s reign. But they made one out of Randle, who became an All-Star and All-NBA type of player.
Randle carried the franchise to their first playoff berth in eight years. But the weight of the playoffs was too much for a first-timer like Randle. That alone should keep Randle and the Knicks on edge.
“It was kind of funny and cool to see who I was as a player and as a person coming into the league and year eight who I am now,” Randle mused. “Just being comfortable being uncomfortable, getting outside of my comfort zone, talking, and telling my teammates what I see and asking them what I see. It’s just really about communication. A lot of [undesirable] things out there defensively or in the game period, we can eliminate if we communicate.”
It’s a long season. There will be ebb and flow. But Randle took an important step that will be critical to the Knicks’ campaign this season.
When the Knicks traded for Rose, they were not only plugging a glaring hole. After all, he is a Thibodeau disciple.
As Rose stumbled and got up along the way, he finally understood what it takes to be a leader. He’s now aging like a fine wine, finding a second, third wind with Thibodeau.
In the last decade, a team revolved around Rose, and it failed spectacularly at the end that led to Thibodeau’s firing. Rose doesn’t want Randle to commit the same mistakes he did.
Rose is glad Randle approached him and is a willing listener as much as a leader.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo
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