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Pretty much everything about the New York Knicks has been a surprise this season. The hiring of Tom Thibodeau seemed sure to raise the team’s floor, especially at the defensive end. But no reasonable or rational person expected this.
The Knicks currently hold a seven-game win streak, the longest active streak in the league. They’re fifth in the Eastern Conference standings and a half-game out of the No. 4 seed and the right to host a first-round series. Thibs delivered on the defensive improvement — they currently have the third-best mark in the league. But their offense has also improved dramatically. Vegas set the Knicks’ preseason over/under at 21.5 — they won their 22nd game nearly a month ago, on Mar. 23. The NBA prediction model at 538 gave the Knicks just a five percent chance of making the playoffs before the season began. As of today, their odds are over 80 percent and it would take an epic collapse for them to fall out.
And then there are the individual surprises. Immanuel Quickley was taken with the No. 25 pick in the draft and has become a key contributor as a rookie, shooting 38.1 percent from beyond the arc, posting an assist to turnover ratio of more than 2-to-1, holding up on defense and putting up a positive Box Plus-Minus. Alec Burks is on his sixth team in the past three seasons but has found a home as a microwave scorer off the bench, shooting a career-high 40.8 percent on 6.9 3-point attempts per 36 minutes.
But the biggest, and most important, surprises have been Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett
Randle’s career year has gotten plenty of media shine already. At the age of 26, he’s posted career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, 3-point attempts and 3-point percentage, earning his first All-Star selection. Per Marc Stein at The New York Times, Randle’s 3-point shooting improvement is the biggest mid-career jump in NBA history. And his overall improvement is not just the window dressing of inflated counting stats. By Box Plus-Minus, his improvement in overall impact has been one of the biggest in the league this season.
The combination of profile, narrative and easily digestible improvement in box score stats gives Julius Randle a strong case for the Most Improved Player Award this season, and he can probably be considered the favorite. And while R.J. Barrett has almost no chance of leapfrogging Randle for the Award, his improvement has been nearly as dramatic.
Barrett has also increased his points, rebounds and assists per game from his rookie season but the most significant development has been in his shooting efficiency. He’s taken his 2-point percentage from 43.2 to 46.9, his 3-point percentage from 32.0 to 39.1 and his free-throw percentage from 61.4 to 73.2. His overall shot selection means his true shooting percentage is still hovering in average territory (he’s attempting slightly fewer free throws and 3s this season) but even the leap to average is enormous, especially considering that he’s remained a high-usage creator and simultaneously cut his turnovers.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus is a slightly more robust measure of overall impact and by the estimate of that metric, Barrett’s improvement this season (plus-2.78 points per 100 possessions) is at least in the ballpark of Randle’s (plus-3.78 points per 100 possessions). Who ultimately wins the award probably doesn’t matter much to Knicks fans, carrying this momentum into the playoffs and continuing their upward trajectory for next season will be much more gratifying. Still, in any extended conversation about how good Julius Randle has been this season, R.J. Barrett probably deserves a mention too.
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