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Julius Randle is having the best season of his career and can opt out of his contract with the New York Knicks at season’s end.

Josh Benjamin

Nobody expected Julius Randle to have a career season with the New York Knicks.

You’ll recall that when he signed his contract with the team in 2019, he was nary more than a consolation prize. The Knicks royally whiffed on the best names in what was a stacked free agency class.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving spurned the bright lights of Broadway for the nouveau chic of Brooklyn. Kawhi Leonard went home to the west coast and joined the Los Angeles Clippers. Even Bronx native Kemba Walker turned down the New York Knicks for the rival Boston Celtics.

That left Randle as the best option available, and the Knicks quickly settled on terms with him. It was expected he would just play out his contract, opt out after two years, or maybe even be traded as part of a package for a bigger star.

In his first season, Randle was par for the course. He was good, but far from great. He showed up and did his job and considering the Knicks were tanking, not much was expected of him. Even with Leon Rose taking over the front office and hiring Tom Thibodeau as coach, the same was expected. Julius Randle wouldn’t be in New York for long.

Now, however, Randle has proven capable of being a potential cornerstone piece for this young Knicks team. With next year’s free agency pool featuring few desirable options, it might be time to consider keeping him around.

 

A weakened market

A year ago, no one would have considered Julius Randle as a long-term option for the Knicks. The 2021 free agent market was supposed to feature stars like Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Leonard. New York’s always been known for clearing cap space to splurge in free agency, so either unloading or moving on from Randle seemed inevitable.

Then, things changed quicker than Arya Stark taking out the Night King. Giannis signed a supermax deal to stay with the Milwaukee Bucks and Gobert inked a $205 million extension to remain with the Utah Jazz.

Even so, the Knicks still have options in free agency this summer, albeit limited ones. Leonard is a great talent, but it’s unlikely he’ll be interested in coming to New York and playing for the strict Thibodeau. Victor Oladipo can score, but he’s streaky.

Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News reported team executive William Wesley’s interest in Bradley Beal. The former Florida Gator is well worth a max contract, but how he’d fit alongside RJ Barrett and a scoring point guard in Immanuel Quickley is unclear.

Meanwhile, Julius Randle already knows the team and how Thibodeau runs the show. Why not keep him around?

 

Not just a contract season

Some readers are already thinking the same thing: Randle is only playing so well because it’s his contract year.

Okay, fine. I’ll play along for a minute, but don’t get used to it. This is a fair criticism, if only because Randle turned in a career year the last time he faced free agency. He averaged a then career-high 21.4 points per game for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2018-19, the season which netted him his deal with the Knicks.

Now, Julius Randle is at it again. He can opt out of his contract this summer, and is of course in the midst of another career year. He’s averaging 23.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game and shooting 48% from the floor. Randle has also been productive from behind the arc, shooting a career-best 40.7%.

It’s also worth noting Randle’s true shooting percentage (TS%) is a highly respectable 58.9%. He owns a VORP of 1.7 for the year, or a 4.6 WAR, and is on pace to shatter his personal best of 2.0.

Oh, and did I mention he leads the NBA in minutes played?

Final thoughts

Most important of all, Julius Randle respects what it means to play in New York. He appeared on Pelicans guard JJ Redick’s podcast “The Old Man and the Three” recently and spoke of how demanding the city can be.

“I don’t care what anyone says — there’s no tougher place to play than New York with the media and the fans who know and love the game,” he said. “It’s a tough place to play. Anyone who loves the game is going to be sensitive about their craft. I was sensitive to it and really wanted to get better. My progression in my career was every year I got better. I took it personal and a challenge and think I’ve done that.’’

He may not have actually said it, but this sounds like someone who wants to remain in New York beyond this season. Randle is already the star of the offense, so why not keep him around as Obi Toppin continues to develop?

We all know it even though the vote totals aren’t there. Julius Randle is an All-Star player and always has been. He’s in the best shape of his career and a practically perfect fit in Tom Thibodeau’s offense. There’s no point in letting him walk and drafting another power forward to compete with the raw Toppin for minutes.

Randle is no longer a consolation prize. He is a legitimate star player for the New York Knicks and deserves to be treated as such.

That means extending his contract, and the sooner the better.