While plenty of NBA players will say they ignore the preseason predictions of pundits, Julius Randle took note that nobody thought the Knicks could be a playoff team.

“Everybody had a prediction about who we would be as a team and obviously that narrative has flipped,” says New York’s All-Star forward.

Sitting at 19-18 as we enter the second half of the season, good enough for fifth place in the Eastern Conference and owning the franchise’s best record this late in the season since the 2012-13 season, the Knicks are relevant—and pretty good—for the first time in what feels like forever for much of the diehard fan base. Randle, who blossomed into a first-time All-Star this season averaging a career-high 23.2 PPG, 11.1 RPG, and 5.5 APG, deserves a ton of credit for elevating his game and that of his teammates. Randle, on the other hand, thinks a ton of the credit belongs to new coach Tom Thibodeau who has transformed the Knicks into one of the best defensive squads in the NBA.  

“Ah man, he’s definitely Coach of the Year,” says Randle. “He’s gotta be Coach of the Year just because of how he has us playing, how he has us prepared on a game-to-game basis—almost like it’s a playoff game every time we play we’re that prepared.”

We caught up with Randle over the phone a few days before the Knicks return to action against the Bucks to chat about New York’s surprising first half, the Mamba Mentality he’s brought to the Knicks, how Thibs has them supremely prepared, Obi Toppin’s Dunk Contest performance, and his partnership with Celsius energy drinks.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

What kind of grade would you give the Knicks for the first half of the season?
We’ve done a good job. As far as where we are as a team, or where we can go as a team, it’s a B. But as far as our mindset and how we approach every game, how we work, and how committed dudes are, how focused dudes are, it’s an A+, bro. Dudes come in every day and bust their butt. Dudes are buying into what coach is saying and we’re starting to see the results of that. Our mindset and our approach to the game is absolutely fantastic—the guys have been great—but as a team we know we can get better and continue to grow.

You talked about a few reasons why this Knicks team has the franchise’s best record this late in the season since 2013. We know about the regime and coaching change that took place last year. But can you specifically pinpoint why this is the best Knicks team in eight seasons?
The details. Every game we come in extremely prepared, which obviously leads to our confidence and we feel like we can win every game. We feel like when we go out there that if we stick to our gameplan we can win every game. Like I said, a lot of that comes from Thibs since we’re extremely prepared.

So how are you going to celebrate Thibs earning Coach of the Year honors?
Ah man, he’s definitely Coach of the Year. He’s gotta be Coach of the Year just because of how he has us playing, how he has us prepared on a game-to-game basis—almost like it’s a playoff game every time we play we’re that prepared. Just off the fact where everybody predicted us at the start of the season this, there, and the next—that’s all outside noise and you obviously never listen to it. But everybody had a prediction about who we would be as a team and obviously that narrative has flipped. Thibs has a huge hand in all of that. So I’m definitely rocking with Thibs for Coach of the Year.

Have you heard from any of the Knicks legends of the past during this surprising season?
Not too much. Like last year a lot of them would come by to the practice facility and be around. We spent time with Patrick Ewing when we went down to Washington since he’s obviously with Georgetown. This year it’s different because of COVID. We can’t have the guests come to practices and all that different stuff. We definitely feel the support from the distance.

Speaking of support, fans have only been back in the Garden for a few games, but there was that great video of Knicks fans hyped outside MSG when you guys reached .500. Have you had any interactions with the diehard fans in the city or outside it?
Absolutely. Going to the grocery store, gas station whatever. We can’t do much. But whatever it is they show a lot of love. You can tell they’re a prideful fan base—you know, they’re proud of our team. They show a lot of love and support and energy. Fans coming to the games—we’re only allowed to have 2,000 or 2,500 at the game—you can definitely feel the difference of the energy in the arena. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when the Garden’s packed.

How heated are these Knicks-Nets games going to get in the second half of the season? I feel like Knicks fans are dying for you guys to develop an awesome rivalry with Brooklyn.
[Laughs] For sure. It’s obviously definitely going to be a different type of intensity. They’re a great team over there so it’s obviously going to be fun as a competitor to play against the guys. Last year, I was honestly shocked by the energy—I think second game of the season we played them at Brooklyn and the arena was filled with Knicks fans. They packed it out with Knicks fans for sure. But the energy in that arena was absolutely nuts. It’s definitely a vibe and something the city loves as far as the crosstown rivalry or whatever it may be. I’m looking forward to it.

That Kobe story you told in the Players Tribune was really well received. Is that the best piece of advice or guidance he ever gave you?
I don’t know if that’s the best piece of advice he gave me, but it’s definitely something that’s really stuck with me and been part of my routine and just my approach to the game. That was just one of the gems he gave me that I threw out there. Obviously I can’t give away all the gems he gave me—I’m a keep some of those to myself. But that’s definitely something that has become who I am as a player and how I prepare for games.

How have you brought that Mamba Mentality to the Knicks? Have you made the young guys go to the gym with you the second you land in another city like Kobe taught you?
Yeah, I try to bring that as far as leading by example. Hard work, how I consistently work on a daily basis and how seriously I take my craft. But one thing I’ve said about this team, you don’t have to beg anybody on this team to work. Everybody wants to go the extra mile and put the extra work in to prepare and be ready for games. That’s just who our team is. Ain’t no begging anybody to work, that’s for sure.

Did Obi Toppin’s dunk in the Dunk Contest over you and his father deserve a higher score?
Absolutely. Bro, that was crazy. He was doing it the night before. In my head I was like I don’t know how he loses the Dunk Contest. I was like, “It’s absolutely nuts what he’s doing.” But you know how the Dunk Contest is, man. It is what it is.

Did you see him do any other dunks he didn’t break out in the contest?
He has some stuff he didn’t break out, obviously. Stuff earlier in the season he was just messing around with. I’ve got a feeling this won’t be the last time Obi will be in the Dunk Contest.

And what happened to your Kentucky Wildcats this year?
Ah man, you know, every program or organization has a down year. It’s how you bounce back. But it’s also not over.

That’s highly optimistic. I don’t think they’re winning the SEC Tournament.
I’m staying optimistic, man. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, not half-empty. Regardless, [coach John] Cal[ipari] will be fine. If this is the year to do, this is the year to do it.  

Tell me about this partnership you have going on Celsius energy drinks.
For me it was something that was really authentic. Before I ever had the idea of doing the partnership and deal with Celsius, I was already drinking it at my house for over a year. My family, everybody loves to drink it. It’s authentic to me in that sense and as far as energy drinks it’s really hard to find a good option as far as being healthy. For me with Celsius, it was great because it’s a healthy drink—seven essential vitamins, zero sugar, and no artificial flavors and all that type of stuff. It was an obvious choice in that aspect.

How’d you come across it?
I don’t even remember how I came across it, I just remember drinking it for over a year and I remember having a conversation with one of the trainers I work with and he was using it. Talking about the good amount of energy it gave him as part of a pre-workout, and obviously for me before games. Sometimes you need that extra boost. I was using it before I lifted weights or go on a run or something like that. I don’t remember how I started drinking it, but I do remember it being in my household a lot and my family enjoys the drink as well.