LAS VEGAS — After last season’s debacle, this is a good sign from Julius Randle.
The Knicks forward invited youngsters Jericho Sims and Feron Hunt to summer weight and cardio sessions in Dallas, where Randle looked lean in a shirtless photo that circulated last month.
“It was cool. He wanted me to come down so I said, ‘Hey, he’s a big-time player, why not get close to him, build that relationship,’” Sims said.
The gesture to end-of-bench players is a sign of leadership from Randle, who was criticized last season for being disengaged on and off the court. The attitude dropoff was partly due to Randle losing two of his best friends on the roster, Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton, who went to other teams in 2021 free agency.
Randle jostled with fans, teammates, referees, media and a video coordinator. It was an ugly season, but the 27-year-old is now starting a four-year extension and the Knicks have him earmarked for big minutes.
“Julius is a passionate player,” Knicks president Leon Rose said on the team’s TV network during his only public comments in the last 10 months. “Last year everything went right. This year, things didn’t go right. Things happened on the court, we saw some emotion coming out, saw some things happening. I think it affected his play at times. He felt remorseful for some of those things.”
It’s also positive to see Randle grinding on his conditioning. The workouts in Dallas were a big factor in Randle’s breakthrough 2020-21 campaign, when he led the league in minutes and earned a Second Team All-NBA selection.
Tom Thibodeau raved about Randle’s fitness that season.
Still, the chiseled physique and sessions with trainer AJ Billings don’t answer all the questions. Randle’s biggest falloff last season was his 3-point percentage, which went from 41% to 31%. It affected all phases of his offense, which inevitably seeped into the other side of the ball.
Was it tired legs? Mechanics? Confidence?
A popular theory is that Randle shot so well during the pandemic season because the arenas were largely empty, whereas a full Madison Square Garden brings a different level of pressure.
Randle showed up to Summer League last week to cheer on the young Knicks, including Sims and Hunt. The trio have Texas ties (Randle is from Dallas, Sims went to the University of Texas and Hunt played at SMU), which helps explain their connection beyond the Knicks.
Billings, the trainer, is a former Texas A&M-Commerce defensive back.
“Me and Feron went down and got a little lift in with him,” Sims said.
That’s nothing but a good thing when considering Randle’s leadership.