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Julius Randle, a legitimate All-Star candidate, is “the engine” that is driving the Knicks’ resurgence.
That’s how Randle was described by veteran teammate Austin Rivers and first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau, respectively, after the budding power forward and sudden triple-double threat fronted the rising Knicks to their fifth win in six games Wednesday night against Utah at the Garden.
Thibodeau’s arrival and an admitted refocused commitment to his conditioning seem to have unlocked a new level of play from Randle, who was signed by the Knicks to a three-year deal worth $62.1 million as a free agent in 2019.
The former Kentucky star is averaging career highs of 23.1 points, 12.0 rebounds and, most notably 7.4 assists per game — while logging the most minutes in the NBA (38.6 mpg) — ahead of Friday’s home game against Oklahoma City.
“He’s our engine. … He’s doing everything,” Thibodeau said. “Playing big minutes, comes in the next day and works, takes care of his body, great with recovery, great in the film sessions. It’s the type of leadership that’s invaluable to a team.
“I think when you look at most players in this league there’s a progression to becoming that type of player. They just don’t get there overnight. There are steps they have to take along the way, and I think he’s done that.”
The 26-year-old Randle reported to training camp in early December “in unbelievable shape,” Thibodeau added, allowing him to regularly log heavy minutes while rookie forward Obi Toppin (calf) remains sidelined.
The seventh-overall pick by the Lakers in the 2014 draft had averaged 16.1 points and 9.0 boards over his first six NBA seasons. That stretch also included a one-season stop alongside Anthony Davis in New Orleans before Randle signed with the Knicks.
Randle never has been selected to an All-Star team during his career, but Rivers believes his new teammate has “played at that level so far” during the Knicks’ first 5-3 start since 2013.
“The biggest surprise for me has been his vision, his willingness to pass and his conditioning,” Rivers, a nine-year veteran, said after contributing 14 of his 23 points off the bench in the fourth quarter against the Jazz. “He’s in incredible shape for him to be doing that. He plays most of the game. He does it on both ends. He’s talking. He’s been great for us.
“He’s playing at an All-Star level, you can’t deny that, not at all. So we need him to keep going, for sure.”
Randle has more than doubled his career assist output, ranking seventh in the league in that category through Wednesday, after averaging just 2.8 over his first 375 career games.
“It’s fun for me, honestly,” Randle said after Wednesday’s game. “To see my teammates come off ball screens, or handoffs or if they double me in the post or whatever it is, to make the right play and hit guys when they’re open is energizing for me and it’s energizing for them.
“It just leads to us playing hard for each other on the defensive end. When we all know that we’re going to come out together and make the right play and passing and just play for each other. It’s amazing. We’re all having fun doing it, and I’m having fun doing it, as well.”
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