How Julius Randle became a Thibs Guy and an MVP candidate for the Knicks

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 26, 2021

TAJ GIBSON HAS heard all the questions before.

When Tom Thibodeau takes a job, Gibson knows what's coming. And when Thibodeau was named coach of the New York Knicks last year, Gibson fielded all those regular questions -- including those from Knicks forward Julius Randle.

There's an internal script that plays out in Gibson's head.

"'What kind of coach is he?'" Gibson said during a phone conversation. "'Is he tough? Is he hard-nosed?' I'm like, man, my first reaction is, 'If you can be coached, you're going to love him. You're going to love him. If you're willing to be coached and really be pushed to the limit ... then he's your guy.'"

The Knicks are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season thanks to a player-coach match that has grown stronger as the season grows older. Randle has not only elevated his play as an MVP-caliber player, he has joined the rarefied air that only a few players have reached in Thibodeau's professional coaching career.

Julius Randle is now a Thibs Guy.

Gibson, having played for Thibodeau at all three stops in his coaching career in Chicago, Minnesota and now New York, can spot one of his own.

"A tough guy," Gibson explained. "A tough dude, man. Because when you're a Thibs Guy that just shows that he can count on you. Ups and downs, highs and lows, you know that he believes in you and he believes that you can go in there and help the team overcome -- through injuries, through it all. It's being a tough-minded guy, fight for the team."

It's a fraternity of a few.

And when a player has been knighted into Thibodeau's most trusted group, it also means Thibodeau has helped squeeze some of the best play out of that player's career.

It's a connection, a relationship -- and some have embraced the alliance over the years. Former Bulls and Timberwolves players Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Gibson all fit the mold.

Randle is the next in line given he embraced Thibodeau's work-first mentality -- and had his best season of his career. He averaged 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists, all career highs -- and was named NBA's 2020-21 Most Improved Player. While Randle's ascension may come as a surprise to some around the league, Thibodeau isn't shocked by the leap of the first-time All-Star.

"When I first got hired I asked him to come in so we could spend some time, just to get to know each other," Thibodeau told ESPN. "And when he came in, you never know the type of shape someone's in, I had an impression of him from coaching against him. I knew he was talented and all those things, but you don't know who the person is. And when I saw -- he was in incredible shape. So I was working him out myself and I saw his work capacity."

It was in those initial workouts Thibodeau started seeing the talent that would help shape Randle's breakout year; he saw the same type of player who shared his hard-working basketball values.

"You could see how highly motivated he was," Thibodeau said. "And then when we had our short bubble, just his willingness to come in and work and lead and I could see how hungry he was. I felt like this was the guy that could help set the tone for us. And then he improved in every facet of the game. It's his passing -- we always knew he had the ability to drive the ball, to post-up -- but then adding the 3."

What follows is the definition of a Thibs Guy, from the godfather himself:

"And the willingness to work and sacrifice for the team -- he's the first guy in, he'll stay late, he comes in every night, all those things. So everything that you would want from a leader and your best player -- he's done that. He's got an unbelievable work ethic, he's a team-first guy, he wants to win, so he's earned everything that he's gotten."

The godfather and his made men. Thibodeau described Randle but could have been talking about himself. The players the veteran coach has connected with in his career are wired the same way.

"Thibs is the first one in the gym every time," said former Bulls center Joakim Noah, who played for Thibodeau for five seasons in Chicago. "The last one in the gym -- every time. Thibs is the best coach that I had because he was exactly what I needed."

Noah has had a love-hate-then-love-again connection with Thibodeau.

"Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" Noah said while figuring out what to say next. "No. There's nothing easy about playing for Thibs. I don't even know what else to say. That's just the answer. The answer's no."

There's a juxtaposition of emotions for many who have spent extended periods of time with Thibodeau.

"He's a guy who's gonna to get the most out of you," Noah said. "And some people look at that and say he overdid it, but that's what it takes to win in this league."

And the ones who thrive are willing to invest in the work.

"He is dedicated to the grind unlike anyone I've ever been around," Former Bull Kyle Korver said. "I think he sees real value in developing the inner strength, the toughness that comes through persevering day after day. And if you're a player who buys into that and you sync in with him, there's a lot of opportunity for you."

THE PATH HERE wasn't an easy one for either man. After bouncing around in the league from Los Angeles -- where he broke his right leg just 14 minutes into his first regular-season game as a 19-year-old rookie -- to New Orleans to New York, there were some in the league who wondered whether Randle would ever reach his full potential. There were also plenty around the league who wondered whether the game had passed Thibodeau by, if his work-first mentality had run its course with younger players. Critics said he couldn't connect.

"I think the biggest thing is you got to be highly competitive, that's one," explained Brian Scalabrine, who played for Thibodeau when he was an assistant for Doc Rivers with the Celtics and on his first two Bulls teams. "He's not your parent, but he loves you like his own. But he's trying to win and he's trying to win that game. ... Thibodeau is about today."

When the new Knicks brain trust of Leon Rose and William Wesley were hired, it was Randle's thoughts on the new coaching staff that got their attention.

"Wes called me -- he's like, 'Yo, what do you need?'" Randle said during a recent appearance on The Woj Pod. "'What do you need to be an All-Star? What do you need to lead this team?' And one of the things I told him was, I really need a coach to hold me accountable and a coach to push me."

Enter Thibodeau and former Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne, both of whom have managed to maximize Randle's potential this season.

The Knicks -- and Randle -- have done it by subscribing to Thibodeau's credo he has carried with him in his three-plus decades in the league: "The magic is in the work."

It's a familiar refrain spoken by any player who has ever played under Thibodeau.

"You have to be able to handle Thibs' desire to grind it every day," Korver said. "There were guys out there who can, and when you can, you watch these guys just go to a whole new level. And I think that's what you're seeing with Julius right now."

With the work comes trust. Randle has taken his game to the next level under Thibodeau -- just like Rose and Butler did before him.

"It's day by day and you get better incrementally." Thibodeau said. "A lot of guys will say all the right things and do none of 'em. He's actually doing it."

Scalabrine has also seen this story before. After watching the Celtics win the championship in 2008 with Thibodeau's help, and seeing the Bulls reach their highest post-Jordan points total under the veteran coach, he sees the method in action.

"There's real growth through accountability," Scalabrine said. "Julius Randle should be a top-five MVP guy this year. If he walked in there trying to be a top-five MVP guy at all costs, his way, that ain't gonna happen. But if he does it the way the Knicks do it, and the way that Thibodeau does it? Now you have Joakim Noah, top-five MVP guy, you have Derrick Rose winning MVP, now you got Julius Randle in that conversation. You got countless guys playing some of the best basketball they've ever played under Tom Thibodeau."

Randle found a new beginning in New York. The same can be said for Thibodeau.

Two men at career crossroads, finding trust once again. Finding each other. After seeing stays in Chicago and Minnesota implode, Thibodeau badly wanted another chance to prove his coaching worth to the rest of the league. Now it's both Randle and Thibodeau, together, who are working, winning and -- even in Thibodeau's case -- sometimes smiling.

"Jules wants to be coached," Gibson said. "Each day, even with all the praise going around New York and how many points he's doing, MVP chants, when we watch film and Jules understands he messes up and Thibs corrects him, he's right there being responsive.

"Thibs doesn't hold back anything. He lets guys know what they need to do better and he challenges them on a day-to-day basis. I think Jules just loves it. Jules likes to be coached. I think it's a good match."

"He has a way," Korver added. "If you're consistent with the work, he's gonna squeeze all that potential. Whatever you can gain through hard work, you're going to get. Are there other ways to get better? Sure. There's ways to inspire and create. But whatever you get out of hard work, Thibs is gonna get that out of you."

LIKE ALL THE Thibs Guys who came before him, Randle's indoctrination into Thibodeau's world came in the form of workouts the two men shared and the late nights Thibodeau kept in search of an edge for his team. The men respect the diligence they see in one another because they know what it takes to get to where they want to ultimately go.

"We kind of like, from the very beginning, hit it off," Randle said on The Woj Pod. "I came in a couple times throughout the summer. I think he just saw how serious I was about my craft. And I know that's how he is. He's very serious about his craft. He's in there late at night. I go in the gym at night and his light is still on. Dude's in there looking at film, taking down notes or whatever it is, he loves basketball."

The stories of Thibodeau's work ethic are of legend, some spoken and some written.

Deng told a similar story: Prior to the beginning of Thibodeau's first season as Bulls coach, he went in for a late-night workout thinking nobody was in the Bulls' practice facility, only to have Thibodeau come down from his office to work him out.

"Every time I come in, his light is on," Deng said during the 2010-11 season. The obsessive attention to every detail admittedly wore on Noah and several of his teammates as Thibodeau's tenure in Chicago came to a close. The same story played out in a similar fashion during Thibodeau's short tenure with Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It's why -- as positive as the early returns have been in New York -- some around the league still are waiting and wondering.

But when many players look back at their time with Thibodeau, they do so with admiration.

"There is the Thibs Way," Korver said. "Like there is a way. There is a certain way that he operates. And I'm sure he's evolved a little bit, but he still believes in the preparation ... and it's the not the easy way, right? And so I do think there is a level of respect for anyone who's played for him -- if you have done it, I'm sure you've got a lot of common stories and a lot of common values."

Noah said he has talked with Thibodeau in recent years about how much that time meant to him and how much he appreciated the work the group put in. Thibodeau, who always appreciated what Noah poured into his teams, had his own message for the man he helped push to the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013-14.

"What did he say?" Noah recalled their recent conversation. "He goes: 'Even the guys who hate playing for me, they always come back.' Even the ones who are like, 'Yo, what the f---, man? Thibs, you're f------ nuts.' They always come back."

THE WORK IS always the final answer in Thibodeau's world. It's the elixir for what ails any team.

"I think he really saw that about me -- like I'm serious about the game of basketball," Randle said on The Woj Pod. "I love the game of basketball. I want to get better, I want to improve. I want to be coached. Those are the type of guys that have really thrived under him, the Derrick Roses, the Taj Gibsons, the Luol Dengs, the Jimmy Butlers ... dudes who love to work."

Randle, like others, found a kinship with Thibodeau.

"The real answers are in the mud, to be honest with you," Scalabrine said. "The real answers are in the cracking back on the weak side, the real answers are being prepared when a guy goes right, how you gonna handle it? Or when a guy goes left, how you gonna handle it? And when you add those up, that looks like winning, right? And that's the bond."

It's why those who knew Randle long before his New York ascent aren't surprised he clicked with Thibodeau.

"It took time for him to build in mastering his craft so that he could be this confident shooting 3s," said John Calipari, who coached Randle at Kentucky. "Foul me? I'm going to shoot 85 percent. You ain't fouling me either now, you're better off letting me shoot it. And that ain't a good deal, either. If he gets you anywhere near the basket, he's too physical. All right, we're going to put a smaller guy [on him]. Are you crazy? He gets you around the basket, he's going to dunk your arm in the rim."

Like the other Thibs Guys before him, what Thibodeau appreciates most from Randle isn't just that he's helping his team win.

"The thing that stands out the most, there are not empty stats," Thibodeau said. "He's impacted winning. So he's not only brought the best out of himself, but he's had the ability to bring the best out of his teammates as well."

Calipari said that while he hasn't spoken to Randle yet about his future, he's confident that the man he believes deserves more consideration in the MVP debate will decide to stay with Thibodeau and the Knicks for the long haul. Randle becomes a free agent at the end of next season.

"If you've been through what he's been through and then all of a sudden a franchise totally believes in you and trusts you -- what would you say?" Calipari said.

Count Gibson in the group who also believes Randle has found his long-term basketball home -- next to the coach who came along at the right time.

"You learn something from everybody," Gibson said. "But I guess him as a player and his development all through the years, he's finally found a coach that really is for him. Everybody gets that one coach that you jell with, and I think right now it's with him."

Taj Gibson knows it when he sees it: Julius Randle, All-Star, is a Thibs Guy.

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