Reputations are funny things, man.
When I signed with the Knicks two summers ago, I was hype. Actually, I was beyond hype: I’ve had doubters for my entire career — and New York’s front office basically told me to brush those people off to the side. They said, We see you, we believe in you, we want you to be our guy. And here’s a big-time deal to back it up.
Them having that type of faith in me.... it meant everything.
But it also left me with something to prove, you know?? I had this whole new role now — and this whole new contract to live up to.
And when the season rolled around, I think I just went out there with those types of thoughts running through my mind. They’re expecting you to get your 25-to-30 tonight. That’s your JOB. So go and do your job. Stuff like that. I’m not a selfish player — never been a selfish player in my life. Always been about the team. But I had it in my head that for this team, in this situation, they were paying me a lot of money because they wanted me to get a lot of shots up.
It didn’t turn out so well.
For one, to be honest, I don’t think I realized everything that goes into being a #1 option in the NBA. You’re the head of the snake, and that’s not just some tough talk. That really means something. It means the other team’s defense is dialed in with an actual game-plan to stop you. It means there’s pressure on you, every play, to figure out how to get to your spot on the court. It means if you don’t execute like you’re supposed to, it’s not just a bad individual night — it’s probably a loss as well. There’s so many little things that come with a big role like that.... and I don’t know if I was ready for all of them.
And then another problem, looking back, is that I think I was so focused on proving myself as a #1 option, that I lost sight of some of my other responsibilities to the team. For example, I was supposed to be one of our leaders — someone who could help establish what our identity was as a group, and who could set an example of what it took to be a winning player in this league. Someone who could not only play at a high level, but who could also raise the level of those around him. As much as the team needed my scoring last year.... they might have needed my leadership even more. And I didn’t give it to them.
I think it was just a frustrating season — it wore on guys a lot.
And it showed.
As a matter of fact, here’s how I know it showed: My son, Kyden, he’s four years old.... and he watches every move I make on the court. Dude watches me like a hawk, for real. And then what happens is, we’ll be back at home playing one-on-one on his little plastic hoop (my wife, Kendra, is the ref) — and he’ll start imitating what he’s seen me get up to in my games. So like when I had a big dunk against some team and then flexed after, next time we played one-on-one, Kyden started doing that. He hit us with the kiddie flex.
But then one day, last season, we’re home playing with Kyden on his hoop, and he got a bucket (kid is already nice) — only I gave him a little love-tap on the play. A little veteran contact. And y’all I swear: he turns around, he looks at his mom the ref, and.... he starts giving her The Look.
He gives his mom that "are you kidding me" face, throws his arms up in the air, and then starts in on her — you know, like: No call?!? Where’s the call?!?
And we’re cracking up, of course — we’re like, “Oh my goodness. Where’d he learn that??!?!?” It’s so funny.
But it’s also like….. Oh, damn. He got that from me. That’s how negative I’ve been looking on the court these days. And in all seriousness, I think I realized, like, O.K. — if I’m making that kind of impression on Kyden, what kind of impression might I be making to all these other younger fans watching me??
Man, I hated that thought.
I know you only get one chance to make a first impression in a city — and I was so disappointed in myself for how that first season in New York had gone. It felt like a blown opportunity. It felt like I'd cemented my reputation in the opposite way that I’d wanted to. Selfish. Not a leader. Not a winning player. I heard all of it, and I couldn’t say a thing about it.
And I knew that if I wanted to shake off the reputation I’d built up, I really only had one option: to come out this season and establish a new one.
That meant rounding out my game. I worked on expanding the range of my jumper, to stretch the floor from three like you’re seeing from a lot of elite bigs. I worked on my playmaking and versatility, so that I could play more minutes at more spots on the court — power forward, point forward, center, whatever it takes. I worked on my conditioning, to make sure I was ready for a full season.... plus a playoff run. Maybe it sounds corny, but I worked on becoming the player I’ve always felt like I could be. My best self.
But I also knew that shedding last year’s rep — it was about a lot more than just being the best possible individual player. It was about this entire Knicks team finding its best self. So with that in mind, I started thinking to myself, you know.... what are the things that my vets did for me, that helped me raise my level, that I can do for our group of young guys?
First thing I did was I started showing guys the value of watching tape, and the way to build all these good habits out of that. That was a lesson I learned from Isaiah Thomas, when IT and I were both with the Lakers. It was only about half a season together, but sometimes that’s all you need with a dude as knowledgeable as Isaiah. For real, that’s one of the best hoop minds I’ve ever been around. And probably the biggest lesson he taught me was how, watching tape, prepping for a new opponent’s tendencies each night, looking at the game under that microscope — it’s not bonus work. It’s not optional. It’s elemental. It’s part of any great player’s process.
And then another thing I’ve been doing this season is — actually, hold up.
Gotta tell y’all a quick story.
Alright, so everyone knows how I had to sit out my rookie year with an injury. But one of the consequences of missing that year is how it delayed all these NBA “firsts.” All these different little dreams you had since you were a kid, about making it to the league — that all gets put on pause for a season. And meanwhile you’re sitting there courtside, in street clothes, watching it happen. It’s like you’re so close to it but so far away. It’s tough, man.
And then what happens that next season, is you’re almost making up for lost time. It’s like it’s all that stuff you’ve been dreaming about.... but now with a whole other year of having built it up in your head.
One of the biggest things for me that I was looking forward to, I think it’s one of the things a lot of guys look forward to when they get to the league. It’s playing that first game on the road in the city where you came up. It’s like a whole homecoming vibe: I went to grade school here — now I’m coming back and I’m an NBA player?! That’s a wild feeling.
I grew up in Dallas, so I had this early-season road game against the Mavericks circled on my calendar. I was excited. Excited to feel that sense of accomplishment, of being that kid from your neighborhood growing up who made it to the league.
We flew in after a Wednesday night game, and the Mavs game wasn’t until Friday late, which meant we had an off day in Dallas. So guys were definitely going out that night. Me, I’ve got family, I’ve got a bunch of friends texting and whatnot, with this plan and that plan. Y’all have to keep in mind I’m 20 years old at this time. You can imagine where my head is at.
So then we get off the plane, we ride to the hotel, and — ha. Wow. I will never forget this. We’re coming up on the hotel in Dallas, and Kobe turns to me and he goes, “Julius, what you bout to do.”
I’m like, “I’m about to see my family, chill with some friends, you know. Have a night.”
And Kobe, he just cuts me off. He’s like, “Nah. We’re going to the gym.”
I mean, that right there, it’s just the power of Kobe. If anyone else in the world had said that to me, in that moment, I might have hit ’em with an eye roll and went on with my business. But when Mamba is telling you that it’s a change of plans, and you’re coming with him to the gym tonight? You don’t ask questions. You just do as you’re told.
And of course Kobe knew we were in my hometown. Of course he knew. But that wasn’t him being a bad dude or anything. It was more like — it was him trying to use the situation to teach me a lesson. The lesson being: To get to the next level in this league, you can’t be putting in that next level of work only some of the time. Has to be all of the time. No such thing as sacrifice without sacrifice.
That was November 2015, Kobe’s last season. And from then on, everything he showed me that night, straight up: it’s become my routine. If we’re on a road trip, as soon as we get off the plane, there you go, that’s my night — before I do anything else. I’m heading to the gym, I’m getting my shots up, I’m putting in my work.
And what’s crazy is.... O.K., here’s the end of the story. So we’re in Detroit last season, on a road trip. And we fly in, I grab my bags, and like I said: it’s been my routine ever since that night in Dallas. Get off the plane, head to the gym. Get off the plane, head to the gym. Get off the plane, head to the gym. Like clockwork. Every city, though, it’s a new situation — there’s different places available. So what I’ll do is, I’ll have the team set up a spot in advance. And that way I can go straight there, however late it is, and get my workout in.
On this particular trip, in Detroit, they had this little high school gym opened up for me. I love gyms like that — simple and old school. And I get to the building, and the guy who was there to let me in, I think he’s the athletic director of that school, we start talking a little bit. And he’s like, “It’s good to see you. Guys don’t really show up here to work out anymore. Matter of fact, the last guy to come in this late to shoot — man, that must have been years ago. It was Kobe.”
I mean, just hearing him say the name….. it gave me chills.
This was the month after Kobe had passed — and it was just one of those moments. One of those moments that stays with you. One of those moments that forces you to take a second, and feel humble about how connected everything is.
And I guess how that story connects this season to everything else for me, is like: I think I’ve always known what a blessing it was that I got to be teammates with Kobe for his last two years in the league. But there’s knowing.... and then there’s understanding. And I think this year, for the first time, I’ve really understood why Kobe mentored younger players like me. Not just so we could flourish ourselves, but so we could pass down what we learned to other players as well. I think that’s a huge part of his legacy, especially in those last few years.
And what I love about this season’s Knicks, man, is how we have a group of young guys that’s just ready to GET BETTER like that. It’s a group that’s ready to work. It’s a group that’s trying to soak up knowledge like a sponge. And whereas last year I might have been going off to get my work in on my own — this year, when we land in a city?? Pretty much the whole squad is going to the gym.
It’s funny, I swear. We’ll have Obi asking me 100 questions a day. (I’ll be like, “Obi, leave me alone.”) We’ll have RJ who just never stops grinding. We’ll have Quick, from his first day of training camp, being the last one to leave the court. We’ll have this whole big bus of guys, on that plane-to-gym workout plan, just trying to get those shots up. It’s a cool energy.
More than any team I’ve ever been on, with this year’s Knicks, it feels like we have a collective purpose. And I think that’s also one of the things that Thibs has been great at bringing to the table. This idea of how we can have our goals as individuals, and then our goals as a team.... and if we have the right mindset, there’s no reason those goals can’t feed into each other.
It just feels like something good is happening.
And I guess that’s how I feel about my own season as well. It’s been a lot of hard work paying off: as a shooter, as a passer, as a leader — man, you name it. And on a personal level, like I said.... it’s been a long and winding road.
Hearing my name come up in All Star conversations?? I truly appreciated that.
And then hearing I made the team.... it's an amazing honor.
But at the same time, if I’m telling you my main goals, and what’s been the most satisfying for me this season — it’s where we are in the standings. Now, don’t get me wrong.... it’s not where we want to be yet. It’s not where I’m hoping we can get to over the second half. But if you’re trying to make a change, then you have to start somewhere. And I think this is that start.
I’ve been painting the picture of it to these guys all year. Just the other day I was talking about it with Obi and them. I was like, y’all don’t even realize.... if we can put some wins together here?? Get this thing going for the playoffs?? Get New York popping?? Maybe even there’s crowds by then, and we get the Garden popping?? Y’all don’t even know. There’s not another fan base in the league that can match what these Knicks fans will give us — if we’re taking care of our business.
And that’s what’s been special about this year. I’ve gotten to flip the script on my own reputation as a player, while I’ve also gotten to help with this larger thing we have going — where we’re flipping the script on the reputation of our entire franchise.
Mostly, though, I just wanted to write this to say thank you to everyone who’s been supporting us during a tough time.... and over a strange couple of seasons. We’re building something here, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
I’m grateful for the chance to make a second first impression.
I’m damn proud to be a Knick.