MEMPHIS — With every 30-point game, every 3-point shot, every barrel to the rim or whipped pass to the corner, the buzz is growing for Julius Randle.
It started early in the season with All-Star consideration, then talk shifted to leading candidate for Most Improved Player. Last month, the talk was being a shoo-in for one of the three All-NBA Teams.
And now it’s moved to the league’s highest individual honor — MVP.
Beyond just the giddy chants at the Garden – and even small ones in Houston on Sunday and Memphis on Monday – Randle is a real live candidate battling Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Chris Paul, Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Despite leading the league in minutes, Randle’s run isn’t slowing down as he’s led the Knicks to the eighth-best record in the NBA. Their 12-1 spurt and 2-0 start to their six-game western swing has them as the NBA’s hottest club.
On Wednesday in Denver, the Knicks will face the leading MVP candidate in Jokic. In mid-April, the NBA’s MVP Ladder rankings didn’t include Randle in the top 15. The latest one positions Randle eighth.
But as the Knicks climb in the standings behind Randle’s triple-double weapons and he continues to be durable, his candidacy could continue to rise. Randle has missed just one game.
Asked about the recent MVP talk, Randle said: “For sure, I’m not going to shy away from it. For me, it’s about getting better from game to game, improving as a player. I’m not focused on it. The praise obviously is great and everything but I’m not focused on it. All I’m worried about is getting better, keep leading the team game to game. Our team, I feel like we can compete against anybody.”
They have proven that across April and now early May, but the final four games of this trip will be the tell-all – the Nuggets, Suns, Clippers and Lakers with LeBron James.
Jokic is the first test and the current starting center Taj Gibson will have all he can handle after his five-block night in Memphis. The Knicks are decimated at center with Mitchell Robinson likely out for the season and Nerlens Noel suffering a sprained ankle in Houston.
While there was chatter about Robinson trying to make it back for the playoffs, he’s not on the current road trip.
“He’s really crafty and has a high IQ,” Gibson said of Jokic. “He’s just multifaceted – dribble, put it on the floor, shoot long range. Can use both hands in the spot. You got to try to do your best of him. He’s doing this for a while now. But I wouldn’t sleep on Chris Paul.”
The Knicks will see Paul Friday in Phoenix for the rematch of their loss on April 26. Randle’s stock could grow if they can beat Denver.
Randle is averaging 24.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists and shooting a remarkable 42.7 percent from 3-point range. A little better passer, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.5 assists and shooting 40.9. percent from 3.
“I’d put him at the top as well,” Gibson said of Randle. “You look at the body of work Julius has put together on a night-to-night basis. Being really professional, especially in a tough market. People understand how tough it is to play in New York and bringing a winning mentality back to the Knicks. Julius has earned credit for the MVP race. He deserves it.”
In Houston, Thibodeau admitted he didn’t expect an All-NBA season but knew he’d be much better with the 3-point shot as a weapon. And the Knicks coach said Randle has set the tone with his unselfish play and taking smart 3-point shots – not just jacking them up.
“That’s all part of winning,” Thibodeau said. “It’s important to take the right shots. The one thing I’m most proud of is that as a team, these guys are playing for each other and the quality of our 3-point shots, They’re not bad shots.”