How Julius Randle found his joy and regained his All-Star status

New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) reacts during a free throw as Brooklyn Nets forward Mikal Bridges (1) watches the play during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)
Forward Julius Randle is having a career year for the sixth-seeded Knicks. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)

There’s a lightness to Julius Randle these days. A wide, bright smile stretches across his face. He is far removed from the doldrums of last season, when his shooting efficiency plummeted after a breakout All-NBA campaign in 2020-21, which earned him Most Improved Player honors. The Knicks sputtered in ’21-22 along with Randle’s offensive output, falling out of the play-in tournament after earning home-court advantage in the 2021 playoffs.

“Last year was tough. I’m a competitor at heart. You get addicted to winning and wanting to experience that,” Randle told Yahoo Sports. “And for me, I wasn't at my best, and we didn’t build off what we did the year before. So it was tough. It was a frustrating year.”

His summer began while his rivals battled in the playoffs. Randle found himself loafing around the house, stewing about what had devolved and all the momentum he’d squandered. Missed jumpers replayed in his mind. “Damn near just depressing for my wife to look at,” Randle said. “And so, she was like, ‘S***, let’s get out the house.’”

New York’s star forward always dreamed of vacationing in Italy, and so Kendra Randle booked a trip to make her husband’s vision a reality. They stared in awe at the Colosseum and looked up at the domed ceiling of the Pantheon. “It just kinda refreshed me,” he said. “It was amazing to see, to experience the culture there. To go to Rome and just see the history was super inspiring to me. That was kind of the kickoff and the start off to my summer, and it just kinda went from there.”

Soon after, Randle took to the beaches of Nassau in early September, dragging his feet in defensive slides through the sand. “I just had to get away. Get away from the game a little bit. Travel the world. Spend time, reconnect with my family, my kids,” he said. “Just reevaluate Julius Randle the person. I can’t be a great basketball player if I’m not balanced as a person.”

He has certainly rediscovered the equilibrium that made him a first-time All-Star selection two seasons ago. Randle is posting a career-high 24.8 points per game while grabbing a career-best 10.8 rebounds — earning his second honor from NBA coaches as an All-Star reserve selection. He’s getting to the line more frequently than ever (seven attempts per game) while launching the most 3-point attempts (eight per game) he has ever thought about firing — thanks to some offseason encouragement from Knicks assistant Johnnie Bryant.

New York entered the All-Star break at 33-27 and firmly entrenched in the postseason race as the No. 6 seed. The free-agent acquisition of point guard Jalen Brunson has, of course, aided Randle’s efforts, and the trade-deadline acquisition of Josh Hart has infused more energy into Madison Square Garden as well.

Randle is smiling through it all, with no hinting of thrusting a thumbs-down at the raucous crowd.

“I just had to get my peace and joy back,” he said. “I just had to get my perspective back on the game and life in general. But it was also something that I learned a lot about myself as well.”

The following conversation with Randle has been lightly edited for clarity.

When did you find out about joining the Starry 3-Point Contest? It didn’t seem like you had a lot of turnaround. Some guys get a bunch of practices in with the format.

“I found out Thursday night, I think? I was just winging it, man, honestly. Just practiced once on Friday, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ll just give it a go.’ Why not? I was here.”

There wasn’t much time to figure out where to put your moneyball and get comfortable shooting off the rack like that.

“I was in the gym the day before and did something at that time that felt the most comfortable, and I was just like, ‘I’m gonna roll with that and see what happens.’” [Randle was eliminated in the first round.]

Was it a different experience having your kids [Kyden and Jayce] with you all the way through the weekend?

“Oh, It was amazing. Kyden, he’s had the most fun of anybody. He takes the most pride in my being in this game and this experience. He’s loving it.”

You think back to the video of Steph [Curry] sitting outside while Dell Curry was in the 1994 3-Point Contest. Is that possibility in the back of your mind during all this?

“For me, I’m pretty young in my career. He’s at an age where he understands things, and his brother will eventually, too. He’s been with me — I had him when I was 22 years old. He’s able to connect with the goal with me and seeing the years and years of my career. That’s the best thing, just being able to share those experiences with him. For him to be able to see these things at, like, a young age and know that he can do these things, too, or whatever he wants to do, anything is possible if he just works at it. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

How much time or effort is being spent on his Instagram account?

“Oh, that’s all my wife, man. She takes care of all of that." [laughs]

I mean, it seems like a whole PR staff could be behind it.

“Yeah, man! She’s doing a great job. She’s doing a great job, for sure.”

Being a second-time All-Star, does that mean a little bit more to you? There are guys who have made it only once, and some people kind of hold it against them, even though they made it to an All-Star game, but it seems it can dampen the accomplishment if it happens only once. Does getting there a second time add any extra stamp for you?

“I mean, it’s all an honor. I’m humbled, you know? But to do it once is an honor. To do it twice, it’s not a coincidence. For me, I just want to keep having fun with it. More than anything, I just got back my joy and love for playing the game. And the results are showing, obviously with me being here and our team winning games. That’s just what it was all about.”

I’ve always wanted to ask you about this. [Former NBA player] Ed Davis told me that 2014 summer after you got drafted with the Lakers, you guys worked out with Kobe Bryant, and you guys were running like 17s [a fundamentals drill] and full-court ball-handling and shooting with the off hand. What do you remember about getting in the gym with Kobe?

“I don’t remember the off-hand stuff, but I do remember we would have, like, a two-hour workout, and we wouldn’t touch a basketball. Just a straight defensive workout and technique and stuff like that. I remember the workouts that we used to have, those were amazing, especially for me as a kid just getting into the NBA, being able to see that up close. And for him to take me under his wing like that was pretty cool.”

And he was 36. Coming off injury to play for a rebuilding team. He had nothing more to prove.

“Had nothing to prove. Nothing to prove.”

All right, last thing. I’ve got this “New Yorker” cover from last year hanging in my room. It has the three Brooklyn stars — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden — all standing over tiny you and R.J. Barrett. But you two are the only ones left here in the city. Does that Knicks-Nets rivalry mean anything extra, especially with how your team has outlasted that version of Brooklyn?

“It’s just crazy how life works. It’s not a coincidence how things happen. Everybody’s done what’s best for them. Luckily, up until this point, my career, what’s been best for me and R.J. has been to be with the Knicks. So hopefully we can just keep building on all that.”