Little adjustments, such as passing and defensive positioning, have allowed Mitchell Robinson to level up in his New York Knicks career.

Winners of eight of their last nine games, the New York Knicks have several players to attribute to the team’s success. RJ Barrett turned a corner recently, working hard on both sides of the ball, while Julius Randle has changed his entire game around. Jalen Brunson is having a season worthy of All-Star consideration, while Quentin Grimes’ return to the starting lineup has electrified New York’s defense.

However, I think the player that’s getting shortsighted in all of this is Mitchell Robinson.

After signing Robinson to a four-year deal worth $60 million, the Knicks entered the season with a stocked center rotation. Along with Robinson, New York signed Isaiah Hartenstein to a two-year deal worth $16 million and then re-upped 2022 second-round pick Jericho Sims to a three-year deal worth a little over $6 million, converting his two-way deal to a professional contract. When you also remember the desire to have Obi Toppin-Julius Randle lineups – the center position seemed overloaded.

And Robinson wasn’t always the fan favorite for the role. Over the last four seasons, Robinson teased fans with an improved offensive game, whether it be a hook shot or a three-pointer, but it never came. The defense, normally great, took a step back last season, largely due to Robinson’s desire to bulk up after an injury, and of course, Hartenstein possessed the Shiny New Toy factor, thanks to his rim protection, occasional outside shooting, and elite passing for a center.

However, through the first quarter of the season, not only has Robinson locked down the starting center position but has also taken a step forward as a player.

For the season, Robinson is averaging 10.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 stocks, and shooting a staggering 73.1% from the floor. The inability to stretch the floor like modern centers is diluted by elite, Tyson Chandler-esque scoring whenever he puts the ball near the basket. Per basketball-reference.com, Robinson has a 149 offensive rating, which is staggering for a player with such a low usage rate. At times, Robinson’s rim-running, lob-based offense can be boring and it might not thrive at the highest level, but it remains effective.

He’s also becoming a slightly better passer, capable of more successful dribble handoffs or even a pass to the corner every now and again. The slight increase in his assist rate to 4.7% from 3.2% doesn’t mean he’s a Jokic-level passer, but it does offer a point of improvement. Much was maligned about Robinson’s lack of basketball IQ, but modest improvements like this, if they can hold over a large sample, could dispel the notion.

I like the play above as an example of Robinson’s improvement. Robinson gets the ball at the top of the key, successfully runs the dribble handoff with Barrett, and then floods the lane with Barrett, creating a decision for Brook Lopez – stop Barrett and the ball, or hold back a bit in case Barrett goes to Robinson for the lob. In the end, Barrett gets a good look on a floater, and Lopez does end up contesting, but that split decision in deciding on whether to stay with Robinson slightly altered the result.

Robinson doesn’t block as many shots as he once did, but the value is all in the numbers for his defensive impact. Basketball-Reference.com has Robinson with a 1.9 DPBM (defensive box plus-minus), while Dunks and Threes have him with a +1.1 defensive score, good for the 85th percentile. The Analyst’s DRIP rating, a metric that invokes both past and present performance into their overall metric to create a true talent estimate, has Robinson 22nd overall with a defensive drip, or D-Drip of 1.3.

Any way you slice it, the metrics suggest that Robinson has been an anchor to New York’s success on both sides of the ball. However, the biggest is the team’s best five-man lineup: Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson. This season, Brunson, Grimes, Barrett, Randle, and Robinson have played 255 minutes, sporting a 122 offensive rating and 107 defensive rating, good for +15. Among lineups with 200+ minutes played this season, that ranks second behind Golden State’s Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney lineup that has a staggering +23 net rating.

On paper, the lineup makes sense, too. Offensively, Brunson and Randle are the tips of the spear, generating and operating the offense, with Barrett being the tertiary option, who can work on and off the ball when his shooting is on. Robinson and Grimes work best with these three because they don’t need the ball. Grimes, who should get more on-ball reps in the future, is a knockdown shooter at volume, while Robinson, of course, is the screener/lob threat that serves as a safety valve when the defense gets too aggressive.

This almost flips defensively as Robinson and Grimes (+2.9 EPM defensively, good for the 99th percentile!) are your cornerstones. Grimes is an excellent defender, capable of defending just about anyone on the wing with his combination of great size and overall basketball wherewithal to thrive on the floor. On-ball work, off-ball work, screen navigation, Grimes just gets it defensively.

As for Robinson, we know what he is at this point. With Brunson on the floor, smart teams have a player to attack; look no further than the Mavericks game before the winning streak, when Dallas continuously targeted Brunson in pick-and-rolls. Robinson offers a last line of defense who can deter opponents and make them think twice when he’s waiting around the basket. Any shot 10 feet and in, Robinson remains an effective threat, capable of stepping up and contesting slashing guards, with the foot speed and size to recover and contest fellow big men.

For all the talk about wanting to move Mitchell Robinson a year ago, or wondering if the Knicks missed their chance to maximize their return, the former second-round pick has emerged as not just a better player, but a key player in their future plans.

When talking about the New York Knicks, it’s rather easy to overlook Mitchell Robinson. Brunson has All-Star equity this season, Randle has made another turnaround in his career, and Barrett is recovering from another slow start. Even if you remove his fellow starters, this team has dealt with Immanuel Quickley trade rumors, Tom Thibodeau on the verge of losing this team and his job, and the shortening of the rotation that saw names like Derrick Rose, Cam Reddish, and Evan Fournier on the outside looking in.

In one paragraph, seven players were named not including Robinson.

But as the Knicks turn things around and look more like a playoff contender, rather than a lottery-bound hopeful, Mitchell Robinson has been a rock in the backline and has taken another step forward in his game. As New York settles in moving forward, Robinson’s defense and the uber-efficient offense will be key to their success and the 24-year-old has shown no signs of slowing down.

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