There’s a difference between being a leading scorer and being an actual leader.
That Julius Randle has grown from the former to the latter at the age of 26 is the reason why he will play in his first NBA All-Star Game on Sunday in Atlanta (8 p.m., TNT). And it’s why his young Knicks are following his lead in their best season in years.
Getting voted onto the All-Star team, and the Skills Challenge that precedes it, are individual honors. Randle, however, earned them because of the way he has stepped into a leadership role for the young, inexperienced Knicks, often carrying them on his extra-large shoulders.
“Absolutely I embrace it. I work for it. I challenge myself and push myself to be able to do it on a nightly basis. I know I still have a long way to go and I can get a lot better as well,” Randle said.
“But I definitely think I’ve grown as a leader. I definitely think I’m a person on our team that leads by example with how I approach how I work. I care about my teammates. I definitely think it’s something that guys look to me every night to bring my game a certain way. I try to the best of my ability to do that.”
Randle has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign. He enters the All-Star Game averaging 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 40.8 shooting from 3-point range — all career-bests.
“This guy is going crazy this year, first-time All-Star,” Kevin Durant said of Randle when he picked the Knicks forward for his Team Durant to face Team LeBron.
In reality, Randle is just continuing his upward trajectory, which had begun while he was with the Pelicans before he backslid after signing with the Knicks last season.
“I’m very close with the guys who coached him in New Orleans. They said, ‘You’re going to love him when you coach him.’ That holds true after being around him, the way he’s changed his game,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “My big concern going into the season was the 3-point shooting, and he was so diligent with his work and he’s become a terrific 3-point shooter. He’s got an all-around game.
“He’s made great strides. His leadership, too. He’s a great worker and sets a great example. The impact on winning has been huge.”
Randle said he learned his work ethic from watching Kobe Bryant during their time together with the Lakers, and he was open about last season’s disappointment and making a poor first impression.
This year, Randle came into camp in better shape. He has taken youngsters such as RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin under his wing, stressing the value of video work and guiding them in putting in extra time in the gym.
Rather than chafing at the mentoring, they have embraced Randle’s guidance. The results are a Knicks team that’s a surprising 19-18, on pace for their first winning season since 2013.
“Very exciting. It’s encouraging,” Randle said. “It’s really exciting. It’s a tremendous honor for me to be able to lead those guys every day to have that type of responsibility. It’s something I look forward to, and just really encouraging.”
Randle has been savoring the winning, and is looking forward to even the victories that don’t count in the standings — taking aim at both Sunday’s Skills Challenge against the likes of Luka Doncic and the All-Star Game against Team LeBron.
“Pretty simple [goal], winning both,” Randle said. “Pretty simple, try to win both, just enjoy the experience, and just make sure my family enjoys it.”