In the race to the 2021 NBA Playoffs, this grueling time in the league is also part of what defines players and teams as great, compared to just good. There are young teams on the rise looking to make a name for themselves and provide a statement for their organization that they are next up on the NBA Powerhouse totem pole. Teams like these have a group of young guys playing with a chip on their shoulder and are looking to prove the world wrong. Then there are the established veteran teams/players that know that seeding in the playoffs is everything and that finishing strong means just as much as starting out the season hot. These teams tend to have a top-20 caliber player with a handful of pieces around him that he needs to help elevate in order to reach playoff contention.

For this week’s Hoopers of the Week, he represents those young squads looking to put the NBA world on notice and show that he is ready for the bright lights of the NBA postseason So, representing the “Up Next” is first-time All-Star forward Julius Randle for the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference. Let’s get right into it!

Julius Randle

Randle should be considered as a top candidate for the Most Improved Player Award with the way he is playing in his second season with the Knicks. This might be the most stable situation of his career thus far and he is really making the most of this opportunity. He began his NBA career with four seasons on a Los Angeles Lakers team that had young pieces to develop, but still had legendary shooting guard Kobe Bryant who was still trying to make championship runs. Did I mention that his rookie season in 2014 was cut short when he suffered a fractured tibia in his right leg in the season debut? Definitely a tough way to kick off what is slowly becoming a promising career.

Then he spent a year in New Orleans alongside All-Star Forward Anthony Davis as he put up career-high numbers across the board only to not be offered a contract extension.

At 24 years old, Randle signed a three-year, $62 million deal with the Knicks before the 2019 season looking to not only revitalize the Knicks’ franchise but also put the league on notice. He wanted to prove that he was worth being selected 7th overall in a draft class that included Zach LaVine, Nikola Jokic and others.

So far this season, he is turning heads as the last two seasons have displayed just the progression you would hope to see from a former lottery pick in his seventh season in the league. Last season, he averaged 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 46% shooting from the floor. He has turned things up a notch this year. So far in 56 games played he is averaging career-highs in points (23.6), rebounds (10.6), and assists (6.0) on 46.3% shooting from the floor. The man has completely reshaped his game going from a bruising big who works mainly down low to a point forward that can handle the ball and shoot it from the perimeter (41.0% from three on 5.1 attempts per game this season).

This growth in his game has helped Randle become one of the faces of the New York Knicks’ rebuild. It has turned him into an All-Star this season and is one of the biggest reasons why New York is only a half-game out of 4th place in the Eastern Conference.

But that’s enough about the career arc of Julius Randle and what he did in the past. You guys came here to hear about how he performed and blew the league away this week. Well, this week the Knickerbockers went 3-0 and have won six of their last eight games.

First was their Monday matchup against the defending champions Los Angeles Lakers who are still without LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Nonetheless, New York won the game handily 111-96 as Randle put up 34 points and ten rebounds.

Next up was a matchup against Randle’s former team in the New Orleans Pelicans. To the tune of a 116-106 victory, these two teams battled it out through their elite All-Star big men. For the Pelicans, Zion Williamson scored 25 points while also chipping in eighth rebounds and seven assists. Brandon Ingram was huge in this one as well leading New Orleans with 28 points and adding seven rebounds. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, Randle was out for revenge and outplayed both of these guys. In a game high 42 minutes, Randle put up 32 points, eight rebounds, and five assists while going 5-of-8 from beyond the arc and shot 11-of-26 from the floor. Vengeance served up sweet as they took down their second straight Western Conference team.

Then to make it three in a row, Randle made his way back to his hometown of Dallas, Texas as New York took on Luka Doncic and the Mavericks under the bright Friday Night Lights. In a Knicks 117-109 victory, Randle dropped a career-high 44 points along with ten rebounds and seven assists on 16-of-29 shooting from the floor and a whopping 6-of-11 shooting from three. To put that in perspective, the dynamic duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis only had 45 points combined along with 12 boards from Porzingis and a crazy 19 assists by Doncic. But in the end, it would be Randle who would prevail as the Knicks wrapped up the week and improved their season record to 30-27, sitting just barely behind the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics in the standings.

This New York team has really played above their weight class this season and have really proven themselves to be a potential team on the rise in the Eastern Conference.

Knicks fans should be proud as they have the chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season, almost a decade ago!