Mitchell Robinson’s return is on the far horizon. When he comes back, he and Isaiah Hartenstein will form a two-headed monster.

You may have heard, but the Knicks’ starting center, Mitchell Robinson, is set to return to on-court shooting after the All-Star break.

It was revealed by Knicks’ Coach Tom Thibodeau last Tuesday before New York’s victory against Memphis that the staff has been very pleased with how the big man has been coming along with his ankle injury, per Fred Katz. Robinson has been side-lined since mid-December after a serious ankle surgery.

While there is no actual set timetable for his return, Coach Thibs was able to lay out the process when asked about it.

“You do the rehab part, you’re in the pool, you’re on the [anti-gravity treadmill], you’re lifting, doing that sort of thing,” he explained. “Then they’ll clear him to get on the court with form shooting, that sort of thing. Then they’ll progress to the running part, the jumping part, then you start off one-on-zero, then one-on-one, then two-on-two, so there’s a progression to it, to where you get to the five-on-five and then you’re cleared for practice.”

In essence, Coach Thibs stated that he is following the advised medical protocol until Robinson is cleared for his return to the team. Until then, Robinson’s goal has been to get back into shape. And so, he has been able to do very limited shooting, swimming, and biking in order to gradually accomplish this goal as well as just getting back into the rhythm of things.

While returning to shoot on-court isn’t exactly the same as re-entering actual games, this is still great news for the Knicks especially since they have been incredibly short-handed recently. With major injuries in starters such as Julius Randle being out due to his shoulder and OG Anunoby due to a recent surgery in his right elbow, as well as other injuries in the Knicks’ roster, the Knicks are in desperate need of solid defense. 

Fortunately, we also have Isaiah Hartenstein to thank for being able to step in and make do from much of Robinson’s absence. While Hartenstein is also currently dealing with an injury in his left Achilles, he and Mitchell are the ultimate power duo at the center when both are healthy.

So once Robinson is cleared to play, what should Knicks fans expect the team to look like with two dynamic centers at their disposal?

A look at Mitchell Robinson’s game

Limited to just 21 games so far in the 2023-24 regular season, The Block Ness Monster has put up 6.2 points, a towering 10.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks while shooting 59.2% from the field. 

One of the best qualities about Robinson’s masterful defense is his ability to rush multiple attempted shots from his opponents. Robinson’s dominance and shot-contesting skills are a threat and instill fear in the opposition, shaking them and making them second-guess their forays to the rim. He is an exceptional perimeter closer and covers a substantial amount of ground. By staying vigilant, he deflects and intercepts a good amount of cross-court passes. He imposes a great deal of dexterity and is great at fending off unnecessary fouls. Typically, he waits for the offense to make the first move before boldly inserting himself in.

Robinson brings a sure-fire competitive nature around him, not shying away from any contact or opportunities for second-chance points. With the Knicks taking their defense to new heights after the addition of OG Anunoby (and then taking a small step the other way with the loss of Quentin Grimes for Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks), Mitch has a chance to come in and get back to his world-destroying ways.

How about Isaiah Hartenstein?

Hartenstein is particularly special during pick-and-roll situations. After setting a screen, he has a habit of converting the pick into much-needed points for the Knicks by diving deep into the paint for a basket or a dump-off. He’s tough as nails, unafraid to get physical in the post, and often winding up bloody. He’s a strong shot-blocker, thanks to good timing, instincts, size, though without the athleticism and speed of Robinson, he’s not always able to match The Block Ness Monster’s ability to patrol at the rim.

Offensively his court vision is nearly unmatched by centers. He’s a consummate team player, assisting his teammates in small pockets of space or while double-teamed. Besides that, his rebounding is out of this world. After securing a defensive rebound, he can initiate a fast-break scoring opportunity through his clever passes, and he’s nearly – nearly – as impactful getting the Knicks second-chance points as Mitch is.

Similarities between Robinson and Hartenstein

When it comes to similarities in their rebounding ability, the Knicks grab both offensive and defensive rebounds at much higher rates overall when Robinson or Hartenstein are out on the floor versus when they aren’t on the floor. The Knicks have a rebounding rate of 53.1% (offensive rebounding rate of 33.0% and a defensive rebounding rate of 73.9%), both currently ranked as top two in the league. 

When Robinson is on the floor, the Knicks have grabbed 54.3% of potential rebounds (75.4% being potential defensive rebounds and 35.7% being potential offensive rebounds). 

When Hartenstein is on the floor, the Knicks have grabbed 54.5% of potential rebounds (74.9% being potential defensive rebounds and 34.2% being potential offensive rebounds).

In terms of their defensive impact at the start of the season, both Robinson and Hartenstein averaged 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. After starting at least 10 games, they became two of three players to have averaged at least 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.

Differences between Robinson and Hartenstein

On the offensive front, Robinson averages just 16.0 front-court touches per game whereas Hartenstein averages 24.1 front-court touches per game.

Robinson also averages just 0.8 elbow touches per game whereas Hartenstein averages 3.2 elbow touches per game.

Additionally, Robinson averages just 1.1 potential assists per game whereas Hartenstein averages 4.2 potential assists per game.

Overall

It should be safe to assume that while Mitch gets back on the floor and back in shape after this lengthy absence, Hartenstein will continue as the Knicks’ starting center. This isn’t the worst thing, as the Knicks team Robinson is coming back to look very different from the team he left.

In this time, Tom Thibodeau will hopefully get a chance to evaluate what both players can bring in the various combinations now available to him, as Mitch and iHart have both proven themselves to be high-level impact players, and high-level defenders, in very different ways.

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