Julius Randle is still the Knicks’ best player amid youth-movement buzz

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He is easy to forget about, because so much of the talk is of the kids, the first- and second- and third-year players, all of whom maximized the preseason in their own way. If we weren’t talking about RJ Barrett and Obi Tobbin, we were speculating about Immanuel Quickley and Mitch Robinson and Kevin Knox.

Such is life in the NBA dustbin, as well as at the family photo session:

The babies get the most attention.

So it is that Old Man Julius Randle – who turned all of 26 years old on Nov. 29 – feels like the George Blanda of this bunch, white-haired and gray-bearded, even as it is likely that he is entering the very prime of his career.

He finished 18 rebounds shy of averaging a double-double last season, settling for a nightly output of 19.5 points and 9.7 boards. He was the Knicks’ best player, even if there were times he could frustrate the Garden crowd with his shot selection, with his Carmeloan ball-stoppages, with his turnovers. Nobody ever said he was an MVP.

But he was certainly the most outstanding Knick.

And is almost certainly going to be that again this season, which begins Wednesday night in Indianapolis, which will feature so many moving Knicks pieces and so much youth, and yet it is Randle who, more nights than not, will fill up the stat sheet in ways you probably won’t even notice until the game’s over.

“It’s always foggy the first start to a new season,” Randle said Tuesday, a day before the Knicks will match with the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and we’ll get a first chance to gauge if the generally feel-good 3-1 preseason can have any kind of translation to the real thing. “We’re excited. We like what we’ve found so far and we hope to keep it going,”

Coach Tom Thibodeau likes what he’s found so far, among Randle and the other corps of veterans on whom he’ll lean to help spread his message and his lessons. Thibodeau specifically mentioned point guard Elfrid Peyton, Reggie Bullock and newcomer Alec Burks among those older players – and none of them is yet 30, either – who have shown a willingness to be his lieutenants on the floor.

“I like the way Julius has been from summer on, to all the practices,” Thibodeau said. “But we a team of leaders. We have some really positive veterans and sometimes that’s not always the case. They all come in, practice hard, play for the team, they’re really good for our young guys.”

“I don’t want to lean on one guy, I want to have a team of leaders and you’re starting to see that.”

It is an excellent ambition, and the others will surely be given every opportunity at mentoring and tutoring and advising.

Still, it is Randle who is the most accomplished player on the team, lifetime averages of 16.1 and 9.0, a borderline All-Star in New Orleans in 2018-19. For all the potential that infiltrates the roster, lurks there, loiters there, it’s Randle who feels the most like a reliable old pro, capable of getting 20 and 10 whenever the mood strikes.

He is not spectacular but he doesn’t need to be. He needs to be 20 and 10, needs to be Old Man Julius while the kids get their sea legs, while some adjust to NBA life for the first time and others try to take a meaningful leap up.

Randle admitted he’s been a little salty, being away from the game so long. He broke his leg as a rookie with the Lakers but even then, as he recovered and rehabbed, he could be around the team around his teammates. When the pandemic sent everyone scattering last March – and when the Knicks weren’t invited to the bubble – there was nobody with whom Randle could share his daily basketball rituals. It wore on him.

“This was different,” he said. “This time we were separate, and away, and so I’m definitely excited to get started.”

Randle himself knows the narrative of the year – “We have a lot of young guys,” he says – and so he probably recognizes that as those basketball toddlers become a greater part of the nightly conversation, he may well become less of it. 

Of course, Old Man Julius, at 26, is a pretty wily figure. He’ll figure it out as he has to.

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