Only a few hours before news broke that another superstar tandem was teaming up in Los Angeles, the Knicks — once the leader in free-agency aspirations — presented their big signing with considerably less fanfare.
Julius Randle, a 24-year-old bruising power forward out of the University of Kentucky, was a Plan B option for team president Steve Mills, who felt compelled, near the opening of free agency, to issue a half-apology statement that was meant to reinforce his confidence in his molasses-moving rebuild.
But Randle is also a legit prospect, perhaps a future All-Star, who knows the right words to excite Knicks fans.
“We got dogs, man,” Randle said. “We got dudes who don’t back down, who have killer mentalities. And that’s what we need. Get back to the old school, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, all those guys — toughness, the fight, bring it every night. So we’re excited about that. And that’s the identity of our team. We’re not backing down from nobody.”
Randle, who met owner James Dolan for the first time Friday night, didn’t get the memo about avoiding Oakley praise. But he also hadn’t yet officially signed his three-year, $63 million deal, so there’s plenty of time for debriefings on the sensitive matters.
In the meantime, he’s excited to take part in a resurrection.
“I had a lot of options. I just felt like this opportunity for me was the greatest opportunity,” he said. “I felt like there’s no fan base, no organization that’s starving and hungry to win more than the Knicks in the NBA. And I don’t think there’s a better place in the NBA to win than with the Knicks in New York. So for me it was a no-brainer. And like I said, every day I wake up I pinch myself. I’m excited.”
Although the Knicks had the highest aspirations in free agency for Kevin Durant (went to the Nets), Kyrie Irving (Nets) and Kawhi Leonard (Clippers), there has long been a fascination with Randle. Mills has spoken multiple times about an epiphany moment watching the Lakers pound the Knicks with their speed and athleticism two seasons ago in Staples Center.
From that moment, Mills claimed he realized the Knicks were too slow and he made personnel choices accordingly. It didn’t work out last season with New York losing 65 games, but it’s worth noting that Randle starred in that particular game for the Lakers while cooking Kristaps Porzingis for 27 points, 12 boards and five assists.
Randle said Mills and GM Scott Perry brought up the performance during their free-agency meeting.
“They said it was a long plane ride back,” Randle said.
Despite that impressive effort against the Knicks, Randle was largely a bust for the Lakers and let go for nothing in free agency. He spent last season in New Orleans resurrecting his career, averaging 21.4 points over 73 games with 8.7 rebounds.
Now Randle’s eager to show he’s more than just a consolation prize.
“I understand it (if fans were disappointed). I’m not going to get upset,” Randle said. “That fan base is starving to be competitive every night, for guys who are going to compete every night to win. For me, it’s that. That’s what it is. I’m going to work my butt off to get to that point, absolutely.”