‘Special relationship’ can help Knicks’ Julius Randle unlock star potential

They have all taken turns as NBA playoff heroes in the Orlando bubble: the Heat’s Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo, Nuggets’ Jamal Murray and Lakers’ Anthony Davis.

They have three things in common. The four players are still in the NBA’s Final Four. Each once wore Kentucky blue. And all graduated from Kenny Payne University.

Julius Randle, who played at Kentucky in the 2013-14 season, is not yet in that select group despite gaudy NBA numbers. But he’s now back at KPU.

According to a source, Randle not only showed up for the Knicks’ week-long individual workouts that kicked off their “Delete 8’’ OTAs, but he has stuck around for the voluntary group practices that began Wednesday.

Part of the reason Randle did so was to be around Payne, the former Kentucky assistant who joined Tom Thibodeau’s staff in a surprise move this summer.

Now 2019 lottery pick Kevin Knox and Randle both have the opportunity to benefit from reuniting with Payne.

“For all players, the offseason is usually a time where you can add to your game,” Thibodeau said on a Zoom call Wednesday after practice. “Whether you’re a first-year player, second-year player or a ten-year player, you never want to stop learning.’’

Randle will begin his sixth season in 2021 and he still has to learn to win. After five NBA seasons, Randle, 25, has yet to reach the playoffs. He’s absorbed lots of losses with the Lakers, Pelicans and in his first season with the Knicks, who finished their partial season at 21-45.

In a Twitter message after Payne’s official hiring, Randle wrote, “Yessir KP! Nobody works harder and more committed to the players. Love it!”

“Julius loves Kenny — it’s a special relationship,’’ one person familiar with the situation said. “Kenny has built a strong relationship with so many players. He was a huge part of Julius’ development early in his career.’’

Randle, who averaged 15 points and 10.4 rebounds as a one-and-done Kentucky freshman, has two years left on his contract but only one fully guaranteed year.

The soft-spoken southpaw is emerging from a mixed-bag first season as a Knick. It was the first time NBA defenses focused primarily on Randle. He was swarmed by defenders and a turnover machine early in the season.

Randle played sounder under interim coach Mike Miller. Though he’s far from an elite defender, Randle’s numbers were strong except for his 3-point shooting percentage. And that is no small thing in the 2020 NBA. Randle nearly averaged a double-double. (19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds) but shot 27.7 percent from deep.

Payne’s other former guys are dominating the playoffs — and the Hornets’ PJ Washington just earned Second Team All-Rookie honors.

Payne was a chief influencer in getting Herro to decommit from Wisconsin and told anyone in the NBA who would listen he’s an excellent all-around ballplayer — not just a gifted outside shooter. Herro, selected 13th, erupted for 37 points in Wednesday’s Game 4 Heat win over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Former Kentucky star Devin Booker has called Payne a “hidden gem’’ in Lexington. Karl-Anthony Towns once told The Athletic, “KP is one of the best development coaches in the world. KP is the horse beneath the jockey driving Kentucky basketball.”

Abedayo, who had an historic block on Jayson Tatum in Game 1, and Herro are one game from the NBA Finals with Miami holding a 3-1 lead over Boston.

As is Miami’s Jimmy Butler, whom Thibodeau molded into a winning player in Chicago and wound up losing his job in Minnesota because he believed in him so passionately. Butler is now making Thibodeau look good, too.

Perhaps Thibodeau and Payne can mold Randle and Knox into winners along the lines of Butler, Herro and Abedayo. Even Thibodeau admitted being unaware of how good a teacher Payne was until recently.

Thibodeau’s stated ideals on Wednesday sounded very similar to the scorching Heat: a grinding and intelligent club that lacks flash while sweeping up all defensive rebounds.

“I think a big part of (our identity) will be who the personnel is, and then we’re gonna play to our strengths and cover up our weaknesses,’’ Thibodeau said. “But the foundation will be the defense, the rebounding, low turnovers and sharing the ball.

“Whatever gives us the best chance to win on any given night that’s playing smart.”

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