Few expected the New York Knicks to make a push for the playoffs, let alone come away with home-court advantage in the first round. Maybe even fewer expected the jump Julius Randle made this season
On Tuesday night, Randle was officially awarded for it when he was named the NBA's 2020-21 Most Improved Player.
"I just wanna say thank you to everybody involved," Randle told reporters on a videoconference shortly after being named the winner. "I mean it truly was a team thing. Everybody in the Knicks organization, top to bottom, I can't thank everybody enough.
"All my teammates, everybody, they trust me and empower me. I just wanna thank them for allowing me to lead them. And then my family, my wife, my son, everybody, like everybody, has played a part in helping me continue to become the best version of me on and off the court."
Randle's son, Kyden, surprised his dad with the award after the Knicks' practice on Tuesday. Randle received 98 first-place votes out of a possible 100. Detroit's Jerami Grant, who finished second, received the other two. Denver's Michael Porter Jr. finished third.
A seven-year veteran, Randle is only the second player to win the award in his seventh season or later, joining Hedo Turkoglu, who won it in his eighth season in 2007-08.
Randle averaged career highs in points (24.1), rebounds (10.2), assists (6.0), 3-point percentage (41.1%) and free throw percentage (81.1%).
In his first six seasons in the league, Randle made 168 3-pointers while shooting 29.5% from deep. This season with New York, he made 160 3-pointers on 5.5 attempts per game.
Randle's volume of 3-point shooting initially took off two seasons ago with the New Orleans Pelicans. After attempting a combined 144 3-pointers in the previous three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Randle attempted 195 in his lone season with the Pelicans.
He credited then-Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry for giving him the opportunity to begin to expand his game out to the perimeter. Randle recalled early during his time with New Orleans that Gentry told him he can shoot the ball and wanted him to start launching more 3-pointers.
"For me, that's all I really needed to hear," Randle said. "It was sort of like a confidence booster in a way, but it was also like, 'Yo, this is the opportunity. This is what I signed up for. This is the opportunity I've been waiting on to be able to expand my game.'
"It really started there. Then, last year, I had a down year shooting the ball, so I was able to clean some things up heading into this year and just keep expanding and building on what I already knew I could do. A lot of things in this league is about opportunity and confidence and mindset. Those things kind of came in all at once in New Orleans. I was able to build on that."
In 2019-20, his first season in New York, Randle's scoring average dipped from 21.4 points to 19.5 and his shooting percentages from 52.4% to 46% overall and 34.4% to 27.7% on 3s.
While his assist numbers stayed the same at 3.1 per game, Randle was labeled as a selfish player by some, something he felt was unwarranted and something he wanted to prove he was not this season.
"I know me, as a person, I know my personality is never about that," Randle said. "I never want to make things about me or feel like I'm selfish or not bringing the best out of people around me. So, for that, it was a learning experience. I wanted to come back and be a better teammate and be a better leader."
Randle becomes the first Knick to win Most Improved Player since the inception of the award in 1985. He joined the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic as the only players this season to lead their teams in points, rebounds and assists per game.
"Pretty cool, pretty cool," Randle said of being the first Knick to earn the honor. "Especially for an organization, franchise, that has so much history and tradition. To be able to be the first of anything is obviously pretty cool. For me, it's a milestone. But I just wanna keep going, keep improving, see how far I can push myself as an individual, see how far as a leader I can push this team. So, that's pretty much all it is."
Under Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, Randle played a league-high 2,667 minutes (37.6 per game) in 71 of a possible 72 games.
Randle joined Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Russell Westbrook and Jokic as the only players to have a 24-point, 10-rebound, 6-assist season. Jokic accomplished the feat this season.
Randle also became the second player in NBA history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists per game while also shooting 40% from deep, joining Bird, who did it in 1984-85.