The Knicks and Julius Randle sit at the nexus of an evolving offseason

As Julius Randle roars down the stretch of a breakout season, the guidance on his future with the New York Knicks has pivoted dramatically.

With a non-guaranteed contract for next year and a new regime in New York, Randle was seen as a likely trade target by league executives just a few months ago. While the Knicks now focus on a vital road trip in which they look to lock up their first playoff berth in eight years, another priority has emerged on the horizon.

Many top stars who could’ve been free agents in 2021 — LeBron JamesGiannis AntetokounmpoPaul George and Jrue Holiday among them — signed extensions during this season. The sudden drop of an anticipated 2021 free-agent class has caused a ripple effect for the coming offseason — teams have turned their attention to extending their own 2022 free agents.

Randle is a prime example and, for the Knicks, has gone from a maybe to a must-have.

His salary this season is $18.9 million. He has already nailed a $1 million bonus for making the All-Star Game, and he will get another $1 million if the Knicks make the playoffs. For the kind of output he has established this season — 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per game — Randle is underpaid.

The Knicks can add up to four years to Randle’s contract, and both sides intend to talk over the summer to see if they can come to an agreement, sources said. But salary-cap rules limit the raise in Randle’s salary to a max of 20%.

It would begin with New York fully guaranteeing Randle’s contract for next season. Currently, just $4 million of Randle’s $19.8 million deal for next year is guaranteed, a reminder of the Knicks’ hedge when signing him back in 2019. After that, the Knicks could add up to $106 million in guaranteed money. Including incentives, that could leave Randle with five years and nearly $140 million.

That’s a healthy payday for Randle, who at age 26 should be heading into his prime. But it’s significantly less than he might be able to get if he waits to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022. If Randle produces at an All-Star level again next season, the difference between an extension in 2021 and a max contract he could demand in 2022 could approach $100 million.

That’s a lot of numbers and projections. It doesn’t take into account the scenario of Randle opting for a short extension, locking in stability now while giving the Knicks some maneuverability to continue star hunting if his salary is locked in for 2022 and beyond. This might be the most likely scenario come August.

What it might come down to, sources said, is just how much Randle wants to remain a Knick. And right now, that desire is strong.

“I want to be a part of building something from the ground up. There’s no better place than New York to do it, no better organization or fan base that’s hungrier … than here in New York,” Randle said on The Woj Pod. “I want to be a part of that, honestly, for the rest of my career. I wanted to be one of the greats here … I don’t think there would be any better place to win other than here.”

While first-year Knicks president Leon Rose and vice president William Wesley didn’t sign Randle, they were among his agents at Creative Artists Agency before matriculating into their current roles. A foundation of trust predates what has been a serendipitous New York season.

Randle has been a free agent twice before. And twice before, his team didn’t show much interest in retaining him. The Los Angeles Lakers, who drafted him No. 7 overall in 2014, pulled their qualifying offer on the second day of free agency in 2018, letting him walk for nothing. After one season with the Pelicans, Randle opted out and New Orleans didn’t make a serious effort to re-sign him.

This time, with the Knicks, there’s warmth on both sides.

That includes new coach Tom Thibodeau, who has overseen Randle’s stunning development into a strong defensive leader. He’s added a playmaking flair this season, leading to a double in assist averages — unheard of for a player in his seventh season.

“That’s what you want from your best players … bringing out the best in his teammates,” said Thibodeau, who has been praising Randle for months. “And he’s doing it in every different aspect of the game, from the way he’s shooting the ball, the way he starts games, the playmaking, the defense, and just the way he works every day. You couldn’t ask for anything more. He’s having a terrific season and we want him to continue to grow and that’s what I love about him. He’s never satisfied — he wants to keep getting better.”

Putting Randle on this list a few months ago would’ve seemed out of place. But after becoming an All-Star and positioning the Knicks in contention to host a playoff series, he’s got a legitimate shot at making an All-NBA team.

And he earned himself the opportunity to have a big choice this offseason.

ESPN’s Bobby Marks contributed to this story.

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