July 15, 2020, 4:55 pm
So much went right for Julius Randle in 2018-19. After a stretch with the Lakers that both featured an overall positive trend and failed to live up to expectations, Randle accepted a two-year, $17 million deal with the Pelicans, including a player option on the second season. Pushed out by the arrival of LeBron James, Randle hit the open market and found it rather tepid. The thought was that Randle could prove himself and continue to build upon the momentum he racked up in his last couple of seasons in L.A., then re-enter the market as one of the top players available after the superstar tier of free agents.
The plan unfolded beautifully. Randle thrived for an up-tempo Pelicans team that shed its frontcourt players over the course of the year between the Anthony Davis saga and the trade of Nikola Mirotic. He was superb as an offensive hub, setting numerous career-highs, including 21.4 points and 0.9 threes per contest, as well as a .344 mark from deep and 0.6 blocks on the defensive end.
His 27.8 usage was also a personal best, and he was able to maintain the same level of efficiency that popped up in his last Lakers season. Randle, who shot .429 and .488 over his first two seasons, blossomed into a .558 shooter in 2017-18. While that looked fluky, the big man was able to stick at .524 in New Orleans. Fantasy GMs were thrilled to see Randle improve upon his big finish with Los Angeles, and it resulted in a top-55/80 (8/9-cat) campaign.
That strong season convinced the Knicks, fresh off another round of spurning from the top tier of free agents, to open up the bag and hand Randle a three-year, $62 million contract.
One year in, everything looks to be off the rails.
Yet, Randle’s volume stats look fine. He finished the year with averages of 19.5 points (down from 21.4), 9.7 rebounds (up from 8.7), 3.1 assists (even), 0.8 steals (up from 0.7), 0.3 blocks (down from 0.6) and 1.0 threes (up from 0.9) while his minutes ticked up from 30.6 to 32.5 per game.
That’s generally a net gain, but it’s his disappearing efficiency that caused a plummet down the fantasy rankings. Randle is back down to .460 from the field on a career-high 15.7 attempts per game.
Add it all up, and he finished the season as the 86th/137th ranked fantasy player.
As for the chasm between his 8- and 9-cat rankings, Randle was tasked with more ball-handling work and was the true focal point of New York’s offense – he averaged 68.8 touches per game with the Knicks compared to 59.5 with the Pelicans. That extra responsibility, among other things that we’ll get into, bumped his turnovers up to 3.0 per contest.
Clearly, the drop in efficiency was the main culprit in Randle’s poor fantasy season. While he was set up to rack up stats, it’s hard to argue that Randle was put in position to truly succeed.
Firstly, the rest of the Knicks roster was a complete mess. In New Orleans, Randle was complemented by the 3-point prowess of his teammates – both Davis and Mirotic were respected 3-point shooters who demanded attention away from the basket, while Jrue Holiday is enough of an established threat that he couldn’t be ignored from the outside even in a year where he shot just .325 from deep. E’Twaun Moore was one of the league’s best sharpshooters last year. In New York, Randle was playing alongside Mitchell Robinson, whose diet of shots is almost strictly lobs, and a collection of power forwards and guards that teams simply didn’t respect as shooters.
That mix forced Randle further from the basket and made it harder to get to the rim overall.
The permanent presence of Robinson in the paint meant that Randle could only function as a true center for limited windows. Last season, Randle played center, the position that best suits his game, 26% of the time, per Basketball Reference. This year he’s seen only 5% of his minutes at the five. And with the team’s lack of talent on the outside, Randle’s being funneled into more difficult, less efficient shots.
Randle’s paint touches dropped from 5.5 to 4.5 per game, and his points per paint touch sunk from 1.002 to 0.937. He took 57.0% of his shots from within 10 feet of the rim this year, a drastic decrease from 72.8% in 2018-19. Unsurprisingly, Randle’s number of mid-range shots spiked – from 72 in 73 games with the Pelicans to a whopping 142 (on which he shot .394) in just 64 games with the Knicks. Randle went from taking 6.6% of his shots from the mid-range to 14.1%.
Working from the mid-range makes it hard to do damage efficiently, especially on a team that was this lacking in offensive firepower. Randle also saw a sizable increase his number of isolation possessions this season. He iso’d on 15.1% of all his possessions and generated just 0.76 points per possession, putting him in the 28.6th percentile. Last year, Randle was at a more reasonable 12.2% iso frequency, putting up 0.95 points per possession for a more reasonable 67.8th percentile finish. He no longer had the benefit of being a second priority for the opposition. Every night, Randle drew the most defensive attention as New York’s biggest offensive threat.
More strikingly, Randle’s free throw attempts dipped despite him working in more one-on-one situations. He boasted a 15.8% free throw frequency on his iso work in 2018-19 but has seen that cut to just 8.8% this year – and has a 13.7% turnover frequency to boot.
The packed paint problem was compounded by the fact that the Knicks fielded a team of mostly power forwards, leaving spacing at a premium in general. New York ranked 24th in the league with a .337 team 3-point percentage. Removing Marcus Morris and his career-high .439 mark (as the actual Knicks did) from the equation puts them at a team 3P% of .320, dead last by a comfortable margin with the Hawks in second-last at .333. That’s an oversimplification to be sure, but it illustrates that New York’s opponents could be more comfortable crowding the team’s only proven scorer rather than worry about average-to-bad shooters at the arc.
If the Knicks expected Randle to be the floor-spacer up front, that’s just a poor bet. While he did knock down his triples at a healthy .344 clip with the Pelicans, Randle shot just .257 from deep over the previous three years of his career. In the string of .278, .270, .222 and .344, it’s clear which one looks like the anomaly. Randle shot .277 on his 3.6 3-point attempts per contest this season.
There’s a cruel irony in that the Knicks signed Randle with money created by trading Kristaps Porzingis, as the shooting and rim protection that KP offered would’ve been a superb complement to Randle’s game.
This isn’t to say that Randle’s poor shooting is purely a factor of his surroundings. His conversion rate his dipped in just about every category you can imagine. Some of this may just be regression to the mean. Either way, Randle’s going to be looking at more difficult shots until things around him improve.
It looks as if Randle, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not a player who can carry the heaviest burden on a team. He’s a perfectly capable scorer and secondary distributor, but not the sort of guy that can prop up bad teammates – especially without the benefit of consistent guard play or floor spacing.
More broadly, Randle’s season serves as a cautionary tale for fantasy players. So often, we’re on the hunt for players who are lined up for elevated roles like Randle’s. Fantasy GMs are looking for guys who will be newly prominent; more minutes, more shots, more focus. Volume will always be the backbone of top fantasy assets, but Randle’s disappointing campaign was a product of his environment. Opportunity matters, yes, but so does fit – and the Knicks either misidentified Randle’s own strengths or failed to complement them; more likely, both.
This looks like an extreme example but it’s important to remember that players need to be put in positions that maximize their talents. When they’re not, those counting stats can come at an irreconcilable cost.