LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When Kenny Payne was in the mix for head college coaching positions during his time as an assistant with the University of Kentucky, several former Wildcats were outspoken advocates that Payne deserved his opportunity to run a team.
One was Devin Booker. Another was Karl Anthony-Towns. But the loudest member of the Kenny Payne Fan Club was Julius Randle.
Randle credited Payne with helping him improve his play in the post as well as away from the basket. He also credited Payne for his calming, supportive approach on the practice floor as well as in the locker room.
Guess which NBA team is headed to the NBA playoffs for the first time in eight seasons?
The New York Knicks.
Guess which Knicks player is a top-10 candidate for the MVP award?
Guess who has been one of the guys driving and supporting Randle all the way?
Kenny Payne, the Knicks’ first-year assistant.
In a season when Randle finished in the top 20 in the NBA in points (24.1, 19th), rebounds (10.2, 12th) and assists (6.0, 20th), the Knicks improved from 21-45 to 41-31. The credit must start with head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Under Thibs, the Knicks climbed to third in the league in defensive efficiency. They’ll open their playoff run in the first round with home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks.
But Randle has been an unrelenting force, expanding his game by becoming a playmaker as well as a scorer.
LeBron James said Golden State Warriors ace Stephen Curry should be the league’s MVP for 2021. The wise guys prefer either Nikola Jokic of Denver, Joel Embiid of the Sixers, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks or the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic.
All of those guys averaged more points than Randle, but Randle’s impact on enabling the Knicks to soar past the Heat and the Celtics in the Eastern Conference is MVP-worthy stuff. In his seventh season since leaving UK in 2014, Randle set career bests in points and assists as well as 3-point shooting.
Payne was brought to New York because of his ability to build relationships with players. Thibodeau can be a demanding coach and a guy to work for as an assistant. Payne has seamlessly navigated his way into the league, and the Knicks have benefited.
With the regular season over, some final numbers on other guys with local connections:
*Former University of Louisville star Terry Rozier had his most productive season as a professional. He finished 29th in the scoring, averaging a career high 20.4 points per game while helping Charlotte earn the 10th and final playoff spot in the East. The Hornets meet the Pacers on Tuesday night in the new NBA play-in tournament.
Rozier made nearly 39% of his shots from distance, while averaging a career-best 4.4 assists and reducing his turnover rate. He played the part of a $19 million player.
*Rookie Jordan Nwora validated Milwaukee’s decision to select him with the 15th pick in the second round. Like most rookies joining a veteran team with championship aspirations, Nwora had to make the most of limited minutes.
He averaged less than 10 minutes per game, but produced 5.7 points and made 28 of 62 3-point field goal attempts, a sizzling 45.2%.
That ranked first all rookies with 40 or more 3-point attempts.
*Another former Card, Donovan Mitchell, was the top scoring player from the area, one of three former U of L or UK players who averaged 25 or more points this season.
Mitchell led the Jazz to the best record (52-20) in the NBA while averaging 26.4 points, which tied Jayson Tatum of Boston for 10th overall.
Booker and Phoenix finished one game behind the Jazz. He averaged 25.6 points, No. 13 in the NBA. Credit De’Aaron Fox with an average of 25.2 points, which ranked 15th.
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