Not many players openly question Draymond Green’s defensive ability, but Julius Randle did. And it raised a few eyebrows. Including Draymond’s.
“He can’t guard me,” Randle said five years ago, after going iso against Green and being fouled while driving to the basket – in a preseason game.
Randle was a young and silly member of the Lakers, Green a few months removed from helping the Warriors win the NBA Finals. That was the beginning of a relationship that can be described as friendly adversaries with mutual respect.
The two power forwards meet for the first time this season Thursday night, when Randle leads the Knicks (7-8) into Chase Center to face Green and the Warriors (8-6). Randle has become the force he envisioned.
“The thing about him you can't teach is his heart," Green told the Orange County Register in October 2016, roughly a year after Randle’s boast. “When you have that heart and type of dog in you, you're going to work. I think he can be really, really, really good.”
Randle, 26, is fulfilling that prophecy. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Kentucky product is, more than any other player, behind New York reaching its seventh win in its 15th game. Win No. 7 last season did not come until the 28th game.
First-year Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is reaching his star, but it’s assistant coach Kenny Payne who has really gotten into Randle’s ear. Payne was an assistant at Kentucky during Randle’s one season there and the two forged a strong connection.
The result is Randle playing like an All-Star, averaging 22.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 6.1 assists – leading the Knicks in each category. He has scored in double figures in each game and delivered a 21-point, 17-rebound performance in a win over Orlando on Monday.
Though Green takes immense pride in his defense, the 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year also realizes he’ll be giving away three inches in height and about 30 pounds.
Expect Green to rely on leverage and try to overplay Randle’s left hand in hopes of forcing him to go right. Look for rookie center James Wiseman and second-year power forward Eric Paschall to also take turns defending the Knicks star.
The wrinkle they all have to consider is Randle’s playmaking. Among power forwards and centers, only Denver Nikola Jokic (league-leading 10.0 assists per game) and Green (6.8) rank higher than Randle.
The goal for Green and the Warriors is clear. The surest path to beating New York is to prove that what Randle said during a 2015 preseason game in Anaheim is not true.