Isaiah Hartenstein, once a detriment to the Knicks on the court, has hit a groove and has been a huge difference-maker as of late.

Back on Jan. 25 after a huge win that was sealed by a clutch defensive play, New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein got candid. 

The team was coming off one of their better wins on the season, beating a healthy Cleveland Cavaliers squad led by almost-Knick Donovan Mitchell. Hartenstein finished the game up with a great performance, scoring four points but dishing out four assists and grabbing nine boards, and had the biggest play of the game: 

He had been very recently expected to step up big time in the absence of New York’s starting center Mitchell Robinson, who went down with a thumb injury on Jan. 18. 

In that postgame interview, Harteinstein said, “I know myself. I’m not playing as good as I’m supposed to be playing. I feel like I’m letting the fans down, the city down a little bit. But I’m just going to keep getting better because I know I can do it. So it’s just trying to get better and represent New York.”

Since that night, and as New York has experienced the high of Julius Randle grabbing his second All-Star spot in four years with the Knicks and the low of losing two games that went into overtime over a six-game stretch, Hartenstein has, in fact, stepped it up. 

His numbers speak for themselves – over the last five games, he has averaged 10.6 rebounds, 7.8 points and a block per game. On the season, he is averaging 5.2 points per game along with 6.5 rebounds. It has been a significant jump for him, especially considering that a big knock on Hartenstein for the first few months of the season was on his defense and inability to grab many boards despite being fairly active in the paint. 

He has also been the catalyst for a few big closeout moments in the last few games for the Knicks. In their contest against the Heat, he had a game-sealing steal that took time off the clock and forced Miami to chuck a desperation triple as time expired as opposed to them being able to set a play. In the Knicks game on Feb. 5 against the fully healthy Philadelphia 76ers, he grabbed 14 boards and was part of a huge bench performance that helped the Knicks get over the huge hump of a healthy 76ers team. 

What can we attribute to this change in game plan for Hartenstein? For one, he has seen a huge increase in minutes in the absence of Robinson and with Jericho Sims still getting his feet wet as a second-year player coming off the bench for the team. Hartenstein was only averaging around 19 minutes per game over his last 15 games but is now touching 30 minutes per game over his last five. With more minutes comes more ability to get comfortable on the floor with both the first and second units, and he has slowly but surely done so. 

 

In addition to the greater contribution, it looks like Hartenstein is finally figuring out how to share the floor with the likes of Randle, Barrett and Brunson. Prior to Robinson’s injury, Hartenstein was often placed alongside another big in Sims, which produced a so-so product. Now, Hartenstein is being plugged in alongside passers in Brunson, Randle and Immanuel Quickley and can really get to work against some seriously good bigs like Joel Embiid. 

His rebounding has been a huge plus for New York as they fought to steal wins against great Eastern Conference teams like the 76ers or the Boston Celtics over their last six contests. He, along with Randle and Sims, have helped New York to outrebound their opponents over this six-game stretch 315-303. The only games they have lost were ones where the rebounding discrepancy was tied or the opponent had more rebounds. 

Prior to this stretch, it felt like Hartenstein was grasping at rebounds that always ended up just off his fingertips and right into the opponents’ hands. Shades of Nerlens Noel’s tenure with the Knicks were starting to show themselves, with Hartenstein looking like the new victim to “balloon hands” memes. Now, he has his footing — and his hands. He is finally consistently contributing to wins, or at the very least, close games. Right now, he does not need to worry about apologizing to fans, to his team or to the city. Hartenstein is proving, one game at a time, why he was worth signing in free agency and why he can be a real contributing big to the Knicks’ bench and defensive identity. 

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