The Julius Randle success — and MVP chants — few in L.A. saw coming

Knicks forward Julius Randle passes after driving against Lakers defenders Talen Horton-Tucker, left, and Anthony Davis.
Knicks forward Julius Randle passes after driving into the lane against Lakers defenders Talen Horton-Tucker, left, and Anthony Davis during a game earlier this season at Staples Center.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Early last season, a few weeks before David Fizdale lost his job as the Knicks’ coach, he took the team for a family dinner at the Ritz Carlton in Westchester, N.Y. Fizdale remembers a light atmosphere during an otherwise heavy season, when players had lost loved ones and the team was struggling to win games.

“In the toughest moments he was always really one of the most uplifting guys,” Fizdale said of Julius Randle. “He was struggling personally. His game was struggling, I couldn’t unlock him, and he was still right there with me.”

Late in the night, only a few remained — Fizdale and his wife Natasha, Julius and wife Kendra. They sat together and talked about the noise they heard from the negative attention they were getting, Fizdale as coach and Randle as the team’s biggest free-agent signing in a summer when Knicks fans thought Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were arriving. Natasha and Kendra, both active on social media, spoke of the challenge of seeing people insult their husbands on the internet.

For Randle, losing had always been unbearable. In New York, where he wanted the pressure of resurrecting a downtrodden power franchise, it was doubly so. They wouldn’t get through it without ignoring that noise.


A year and a half later, the noise sounds different. It‘s M-V-P chants as Randle steps to the free-throw line — cheers of relief from an unforgiving fanbase.

“The love you get in the Garden that the fans are showing me is amazing,” Randle said. “It feels really good, honestly. I’m not gonna lie.”

The fourth-seeded Knicks (41-31), led by Randle, will play in their first playoff series since 2013 on Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks (41-31). It is also the first playoff game of Randle’s six-year career in the NBA, one that started when the Lakers drafted him seventh overall in 2014. He’s now an All-Star, a finalist for most improved player and some voters will include him on their MVP ballots this year. He’s a leader for the NBA’s other glamour franchise, 3,000 miles away from where his NBA journey started. And the Knicks, after nearly a decade of futility, might have found some stability.

Knicks forward Julius Randle takes a shot over Lakers forward Anthony Davis.
Knicks forward Julius Randle takes a shot over Lakers forward Anthony Davis during a game on May 11 at Staples Center.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“What he’s doing right now is what he’s always wanted to do,” said Aaron Mintz, Randle’s agent. “He’s wanted to be the leader on a team where the responsibility is on his shoulders to help carry that franchise and their fanbase the way he’s been doing. He takes great pride in it. He is just so thrilled for the Knicks and the city of New York with what’s going on.”

The big stage he finds himself on in New York is nothing new for Randle. He played college basketball at Kentucky, then spent four seasons with the Lakers during a time when the franchise was trying to figure out where they were headed after Kobe Bryant retired.

The Knicks, meanwhile, won 37 games during the 2013-14 season and it got worse from there. To help, they hired Phil Jackson, who won 11 championships with the Chicago Bulls and Lakers, as an executive in 2014. Jackson’s tenure ended in 2017 without the Knicks ever finishing better than 12th place in the Eastern Conference.


Randle became a restricted free agent in the summer of 2018, but never felt that the Lakers were interested in signing him to a long-term contract. They were focused on signing and then building a team around LeBron James. After a free-agency period during which the Lakers never made him a serious offer, they eventually renounced their rights to him so he could find another home. He signed a two-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans that included a player option for the second season.

“I think just like any player” leaving his first team, “he was a little disappointed,” said then-Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry.

Randle averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game with the Pelicans, then again entered a free-agency period dominated by superstar names. There were rumors that the Knicks could land Durant and Irving. The pair chose the Brooklyn Nets instead. Randle signed a three-year deal with the Knicks worth $62 million.

Gentry recalled Randle calling to thank him: “He just said, ‘I appreciate coach what you did and the way you let me play. I just appreciate the situation. From a financial standpoint it worked out great for me.’”

Pelicans forward Julius Randle poses for a photograph during media day in 2018.
Julius Randle poses for a photograph during media day in 2018 after signing a one-year deal with the Pelicans.
(Matthew Hinton / Associated Press)

Randle embraced all that came with being a Knick.

“Julius went there knowing it wouldn’t happen overnight, but I think when you work that hard and you care that much and you’re that passionate, it’s frustrating when it doesn’t happen, even when you know it’s not going to happen right away,” Mintz said.

Said Fizdale: “We spent hours together just really trying to get him to understand that it’s not on him to save the Knicks.”

The Knicks fired Fizdale in December 2019, during an eight-game losing streak. He would later join ESPN as an analyst.


Three months later, on March 11, their season ended abruptly. The COVID-19 pandemic halted play, and with a 21-45 record, the Knicks did not qualify for the NBA restart in the Florida bubble.

Their changes that year created a comfortable setting for Randle.

They had hired Leon Rose as their team president in early March. Rose was a longtime NBA agent who had been part of CAA, the agency that represents Randle. Later that summer they hired William Wesley, who’d been closely associated with the Kentucky basketball program, as their executive vice president of basketball operations. They hired Tom Thibodeau as their coach and Randle set to work immediately on developing a relationship with him. Thibodeau brought Kenny Payne onto his staff, a former Kentucky assistant with a close relationship with Randle.

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Randle came into the Knicks facility as soon as he could and Thibodeau was impressed at the shape he’d kept himself in despite pandemic-related restrictions.

“It’s not easy to be in that type of shape when everything’s closed down,” said Thibodeau, a finalist for coach of the year. “It’s not like a lockout where you can go or play pickup somewhere, that sort of thing. I also could tell he put a lot of time into his shooting. That was a big concern coming in when I took the job. I think that changed everything.”

He added later: “You could tell how important everything was and how determined he was to get this thing turned around for us.”

Randle took on more responsibility than he ever had in his career, averaging a career-high 37.6 minutes per game. He’s also averaging career highs in points (24.1), rebounds (10.2) and assists (6.0). He went from shooting 27.7% on three-pointers last season to 41.1% In February, he became an All-Star.

“Everything you can dream of, it just seemed like it all came to fruition,” Randle said. “It was amazing obviously. … The goals that I wrote down when I decided I wanted to play for the Knicks, it’s all happening.”


Bringing the Knicks back to the playoffs was one of those goals.

The city that once grew impatient with Randle’s Knicks has grown to love him. Randle has developed a fondness for it. He’s said multiple times that he wants to retire a Knick. His family has enjoyed being there as well, with 4-year-old Kyden Randle becoming a star in his own right.

Julius Randle greets his son Kyden, then 2, before a game while playing with the Pelicans.
Julius Randle greets his son Kyden, then 2, before a game while playing with the Pelicans in 2019.
(Matthew Hinton / Associated Press)

Like his dad, Kyden can’t stand when the Knicks lose. After a two-point loss to the Lakers at Staples Center this month, Kendra posted a video of Kyden despondently crying that he wanted the two teams to play again right then so the Knicks could have another shot.

“The day-to-day journey, the day to day just of him being who he is, is just amazing to me because he picks up on everything,” Randle said. “He sees everything that I do as a player and the other teams’ players do and you know he’s really observant.”

He’s now old enough to understand his dad’s daily life, just in time to see him give New York City an experience it has craved for nearly a decade.