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Julius Randle’s ability to play off ball the biggest Knicks question

The Knicks believe they have answered their point-guard conundrum with the addition of Jalen Brunson.

Team president Leon Rose locked up long-term building block RJ Barrett. The front office found a way to keep defensive anchor Mitchell Robinson.

All three players figure to be important pieces as the Knicks look to climb their way up the rugged Eastern Conference in the years to come. Where that leaves Julius Randle — their leading scorer, rebounder and distributor the past three seasons — is uncertain.

Randle, 27, remains one of their highest-priced and most talented players. He’s owed $23.7 million this season and has averaged 21.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists in 207 games for the Knicks. The physical forward was the bedrock to their breakthrough 2020-21 season — when he was the NBA’s Most Improved Player, an All-NBA second-team selection and guided the Knicks to their first postseason berth since 2013.

But the sculpted 6-foot-8, 250-pound Randle has always been at his best with the ball in his hands, and now that figures to happen far less frequently, particularly with the addition of Brunson. It will mean fewer isolation plays for Randle, more post-ups and spot-up shooting. Fewer opportunities for him to initiate offense. He will need to adapt and adjust, and be open to change. It could make the game easier for him, opening things up that weren’t previously there. Less playmaking responsibilities may not hinder Randle, as long as he buys into his role being tweaked.

Julius Randle will be playing more off the ball this season.
Getty Images

Let’s not forget last season was a forgettable one for Randle. He shot just 41.1 percent from the field, his lowest figure since his rookie season with the Lakers, and made just 30.8 percent of his 3-point attempts. His assists fell from 6.0 to 5.1, but his turnovers rate remained high, at a whopping 3.4 per game. So much of that happened without a true point guard on the roster, due to injuries to Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose.

He was booed at times, as his struggles epitomized the Knicks’ dismal 37-45 campaign. He often seemed unhappy, losing his cool on a few occasions.

The most infamous incident came in early January. Randle lashed out at the criticism coming his way. “Really don’t give a f–k what anybody has to say, to be honest,” he said at the time. In the next game, he gave a thumbs-down gesture to the fans. When asked what it was for, Randle responded, “To shut the f–k up.’’

Julius Randle
Jason Szenes

Randle enters this preseason in a drastically different position than he was a year ago. At this time last September, Randle was fresh off receiving a four-year, $117 million contract extension. He was the face of the Knicks, the player fans thought had broken through as one of the sport’s top forwards. He was going to be leading the Knicks’ renaissance under coach Tom Thibodeau. His “New York, we here!” shout-out to fans became a rallying cry that was made into T-shirts and hoodies.

Now questions surround him. Can he regain his All-Star form? Can he thrive next to a ball-dominant point guard? Is his future elsewhere? Does he even want to be a Knick long term?

As training camp gets underway Tuesday, there will be attention on the big new addition at point guard. Barrett has a new contract and the pressure that comes with it. Thibodeau could face some heat if this season mirrors last year.

But nobody will be under the microscope quite like Randle. Knicks fans have seen him at his best and also at his worst. But now they will likely see a different Randle. It’s a mystery how that will turn out. Training camp should begin to offer up some early clues.