When the 2021 NBA All-Star Game takes place on Sunday, March 7, there will be four players making an appearance on the All-Star stage for the first time in their respective careers.
Among them is New York Knicks forward Julius Randle, a player that's quite familiar with playing on the big stage.
In seven seasons, Randle has never been to the NBA Finals - or the NBA Playoffs for that matter - but he stands at the forefront of the resurgence of one of the league's most storied franchises in one of basketball's most storied cities.
It's no secret that part of the lore surrounding the Knicks is because of the fact that New York City and Madison Square Garden are widely considered to be the Meccas of basketball, and Randle has called that stage home for the past two years.
In his second season as a Knick, the 26-year-old is shining brighter than ever before, posting averages of 23.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, all career-highs. These numbers have the Knicks in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt at the midway point of the season, meaning the pressure to snap the franchise's eight-year playoff streak is beginning to rise.
A look back at how he got to this point today shows that Randle is clearly built for this moment…
In 2012, while Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith were leading the Knicks to a 54-28 record, Randle was completing his senior season at Prestonwood Christian Academy, right outside of his hometown of Dallas, TX. A consensus top-five recruit, Randle elected to play at the University of Kentucky, a choice that comes with more pressure than many teenagers can handle.
How did Randle respond to the pressure? By recording the second-most double-doubles in school history (24) and doing his part to lead eighth-seeded Kentucky to the 2014 National Championship Game with season averages of 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds over 40 games.
The Wildcats, who were led by all underclassmen, made one of the more memorable runs to the title game, where they would lose by six points to a more seasoned Connecticut team.
Just months after playing for a national title with Kentucky, Randle was making his NBA debut as a 19-year-old rookie with another one of the league's most storied franchises in the Los Angeles Lakers, who selected him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. At 19, Randle played his first-ever NBA game against the Houston Rockets in front of a national TV audience alongside his childhood idol in Kobe Bryant.
How's that for pressure?
It was right out of a storybook … except, it wasn't. Randle's rookie season came to an end not long after it started as he broke his right tibia just 13 minutes into his debut.
The story of Randle's return to action in the 2015-16 season took a backseat to the story of Bryant, who embarked upon a farewell tour after announcing his retirement in November of 2015. Still, in what was essentially his rookie year, the 21-year-old Randle averaged a double-double of 11.3 points and 10.2 rebounds over 81 games (60 starts).
In Bryant's final game, Randle was one of the first young Lakers he brought in for an embrace in the game's final seconds. The now-iconic photo was a physical representation of the bond he had developed with his young teammates, to whom he had imparted his wisdom upon during their time together.
Though Randle continued to grow into his own as a player over the next two seasons, the Lakers renounced his rights to make him an unrestricted free agent in 2018, paving the way for him to sign a deal with the New Orleans Pelicans in which he essentially bet on himself, and the bet paid off.
After averaging a then-career-best 21.4 points over 73 games with the Pelicans, Randle opted out of his contract and signed a three-year deal with the Knicks, with the third year as a team option.
Fittingly, right back to a big stage where he's known to thrive.
After a 2019-20 season that was full of changes and ups and downs, Randle is one of many beneficiaries of a new Knicks regime that's led by president Leon Rose and head coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau's got his team all-in on the defensive end and has entrusted Randle with the ball in his hands, resulting in his career-best assists numbers.
To put Randle's playmaking in perspective, he's recorded five or more assists 24 times through 36 games in the 2020-21 season. Prior to this season, Randle's best year as a playmaker came in 2016-17, when he recorded five or more assists 20 times in 74 games.
Of course, the numbers are a direct product of an increased role but the increased role is a reflection of the growth that Randle has made as a player. In addition to career-highs in points, rebounds and assists, Randle is knocking down a career-high 1.9 3s per game at a 41.2 percent clip.
Yet another sign of growth.
But it's not all about the numbers, because what Randle brings to this New York team isn't always easy to measure. The confidence and moxie with which he plays have helped the Knicks establish the identity that has them where they are up to this point in the season.
With each day that passes that the Knicks are in the playoff picture, the noise surrounding the potential of their ending a near-decade-long drought gets louder and louder. But as we've seen in the past, as the pressure rises, Randle finds ways to perform even better.
That's why he's an All-Star.
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