Kristaps Porzingis was great, but he wasn’t Julius Randle.
When the Knicks missed out on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2019 — less than five months removed from trading Porzingis for a package headlined by Dennis Smith Jr. — it only added to other, already infamous exchanges. (Shoutout to Andrea Bargnani if you’re reading this 👋🏽)
But as unique, as homegrown, and as transformative as Porzingis appeared, Randle is the perfect representative of New York’s new-found culture.
Randle is exactly what all of our Knick-fan friends envision as a “New York” style of player. If you’re from here, he’s the dude you love having as a teammate in the park because of his authentic determination, even if he occasionally annoys you with his borderline reckless spin moves and over-dribbling into contested jumpers. But even now, not only has Randle toned that down, he’s hitting more of said-jumpers, so you’ll take it.
We have this idea in our heads of Porzingis being the unicorn. Of him being the 7-foot-3 Latvian who defiantly proved pundits wrong en route to becoming a homegrown All-Star in just his third NBA season. Who would emphatically swat your dunk attempt, fall on his ass, rise up, sprint to the other end of the floor, trail the ball-handler, and swish home a 27-foot in-rhythm, straight-away, three-pointer, igniting a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd.
But that highlight is probably why some people away from New York haven’t warmed up to the idea of Randle surpassing Porzingis. And they write off those who do see this manifest as merely ‘delusional.’
When Porzingis starred in that 2017-18 season, the Knicks had been 23-31 by the time he tore his ACL in early February, shortly before the All-Star break. He had been averaging 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks on 43.9 / 39.5 / 79.3 percent shooting splits. He did it through 48 games while averaging 32.4 minutes. He also did it while having a 105 offensive rating, 108 defensive rating, a 1.8 box plus-minus, and a 53.9 true shooting-percentage. And a forgotten piece of this is: He was 22-years-old. The Knicks hadn’t had such a rising development from an organizationally-drafted talent since David Lee 10 years earlier, but even his emergence didn’t inspire such energy.
Now take Randle, a plodding tweener big-man who signed a hefty three-year (two guaranteed) deal worth $63 million in July of 2019, who joined the Knicks after they whiffed on an all-hands-on-deck free agency, and who was now on his third-team shortly before turning 25. He averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game the season before, which was 73 New Orleans Pelicans appearances, including 24 off the bench. No one dared make the comparison, though, even if his shooting splits were 52.4 / 34.4 / 73.1. And no one dared after he bulldozed his way to 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game last year because the team was losing at a lottery-bound rate. It didn’t help that Zion Williamson, whom the Knicks also missed out on, was the Pelicans’ prize for winning the draft lottery, parting with Randle, and dealing Anthony Davis.
But Porzingis’ best work doesn’t compare to what Randle has done in New York this season. It’s 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. It’s one of three NBA players averaging at least 23-11-5 along with Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s shooting splits of 48.3 / 40.8 / 80.5. It’s an offensive rating of 114, a defensive rating of 107, a box plus-minus of 4.1, and a true shooting percentage of .587. Sure, he leads the NBA with 1,358 minutes, but his minutes per game sit at 36.7, meaning his per-36 tallies barely have a drop-off.
And most importantly, the Knicks are winning. Not extremely often, but more often than they had been. 19-18 is the Knicks’ best record through 37 games since the 2012-13 team began 24-13. That was the famous 54-win Carmelo Anthony/Tyson Chandler-led roster, starring current assistant Mike Woodson as head coach. But in this tumultuous time and COVID-ravaged season, the Knicks are also fifth in the Eastern Conference standings at the All-Star break. They’re not even firmly in the playoffs because of the closeness between records, but they’re still much better than most anticipated just three months ago.
Porzingis grew into the chosen one Randle was never allowed to become. We barely remember that Kobe Bryant once called him Lamar Odom in Zach Randolph’s body. But Randle being the first All-Star since KP is symbolic. He’s the perfect face for where the Knicks are in their rebuild. The perfect leader for this grind-it-out phase until they’re ready to leap into true contention. And the perfect overlooked, undervalued, grit-and-grind All-Star to represent who the fans see themselves as and their vision for the team. Randle is a Knick. It’s only unfortunate that their fans can’t experience his outburst among nearly 20,000 others. But you could use your imagination.