Mitchell Robinson was handed the opening night start and fumbled it. What have been the third-year Knicks center’s problems since preseason?

Mitchell Robinson is one of the most important people in the New York Knicks organization at the moment. The 22-year-old center, whose shot-blocking and lob-finishing skills have made him one of the Knicks’ best players since his rookie year, is beginning his third NBA season.

Robinson’s contention for the title of New York’s best player is more so the effect of the team’s embarrassing dearth of talent than the big man’s talents. On just about any other team, even fellow rebuilding ones like the Knicks, Robinson would cede the title of best player to someone else. A team’s best player is almost always their biggest offensive threat, whether they be a dangerous scorer, effective playmaker, or both. For the Knicks teams of the last few seasons, who have lacked such a player, it has arguably been their dynamic yet foul-prone defensive anchor.

The Knicks’ rebuilding efforts have been stained by the lack of development in their draft picks. Kristaps Porzingis was the last lottery pick that blossomed into a truly good player in New York. Since Porzingis was shipped to Dallas, the Knicks have been stuck with an uninspiring collection of young talent.

Robinson has been New York’s biggest glimmer of hope. The seven-footer’s improvement has been—and still is—paramount to how the team improves. He doesn’t stuff the box score, but advanced stats say he impacts the game with the best of them. If he could better utilize his tantalizing athleticism, cut down on fouls, and improve his offensive game in any way, New York would have a surefire franchise centerpiece. But through two full NBA seasons and the very beginning of a third, none of that has happened as much as New York needs it to.

Preseason isn’t the best way to forecast how a player will produce over a full season—don’t count on Talen Horton-Tucker scoring 20 per game for the Lakers—but it can show if players have made improvements to their game. In fact, take Horton-Tucker as an example. When he was taken 46th overall in the 2019 draft, there were concerns about his touch and shooting. Across four preseason games, THT was dynamite, scoring with tough layups, off-the-dribble three-pointers, and more.

A few Knicks have shown slight improvement in some areas as the 2020–21 season approaches. R.J. Barrett has done so the most. In the preseason, the second-year wing shot 86.7% from the free throw line, an improvement of over 25 percentage points compared to his rookie season. He flashed an effective mid-range jumper and dropped a very efficient 26 points in the season opener.

Also in the preseason, Dennis Smith Jr. drew two charges in three games and averaged more steals per game than in past seasons. Kevin Knox put on an amazing three-point shooting exhibition over the last two games, connecting on nine of his 12 triples. That efficiency of 75% would be absurd to retain over a season, but it at least showed that Knox has the ability to light it up from downtown.

Meanwhile, Robinson looks like just about the same player. His overall progression has been far too minuscule for him to be considered a true centerpiece. His raw talents make him a dynamic shot stuffer, but he has yet to show any substantial growth as a player since his NBA career began.

Far too often, Robinson is often a fundamentally deficient defender. Whether it be lacking discipline while he’s switched onto quicker players or being out of position. Players of Robinson’s size are only as impactful as their defensive I.Q. allows them. Any tall guy can block shots, but the best defenders are the ones who rely on positioning and discipline to lock down their opponents.

The Insistence to Block Shots

In the following clip, Robinson’s rotation allows a corner triple. Knox rotates from the corner to protect the paint. But so does Robinson. His man, Blake Griffin, makes a quick pass to the corner to Saddiq Bey, who nails the corner three. Perhaps Robinson’s shot-blocking instincts tell him to pick up the driving guard, but it isn’t his responsibility when he’s guarding someone on the wing.

While Robinson is not the main reason Detroit scores—Smith Jr. is the culprit for letting Killian Hayes get a full head of steam towards the basket—he is partially at fault for allowing Detroit such an open look.

Robinson was the main culprit for allowing an even more open triple against the Cavaliers. As Cleveland brings up the ball in transition, Robinson abandons the player he should be matching up with. That player, Dean Wade, hadn’t been that wide open since warmups.

Another factor of Robinson’s defensive skill set that needs improvement is how to properly deploy his eye-popping athleticism. Make no mistake: Robinson has athleticism and size that is rare. Not many big men can move as fluidly and quickly as he can. But he needs to harness his physical gifts more to limit fouls.

That Nasty Fouling

Robinson’s leaping ability is impressive, but he a) uses it when he doesn’t have to, and b) is out of control too often. He also has yet to meet a shot fake he doesn’t want to jump at. Griffin got Robinson out of the air, and eventually onto his shoulders, with a rudimentary pump fake.

Here, Robinson fouls Andre Drummond because he jumped out towards Drummond instead of up towards the ball.

As Drummond took his position at the free throw line, Knicks legend and MSG color commentator Walt Frazier said that Robinson has been a disappointment to him. “I have not seen improvement. [He’s] still very foul prone and obviously that’s what’s bedeviled him since he’s been a Knick,” he said. Less than a minute later, Robinson fouled Drummond on another made bucket. This time, Robinson allowed Drummond too much space to get between him and the basket.

In the regular-season opener, Robinson got the nod to start, but he put his playing time in jeopardy quickly. Four minutes into the game, he committed two shooting fouls on Domantas Sabonis in the span of 30 seconds. He was subbed out, reinserted to start the second quarter, and fouled Sabonis on a shot again two minutes later. He played just 21 minutes in the 14-point defeat, tallying six rebounds, three points, and a team-high three blocks.

Getting in foul trouble early has been a feature of the Mitchell Robinson experience for the past two seasons. The problem was somewhat excusable as a rookie given that Robinson didn’t play college basketball. It persists after two years in the NBA.

Although Robinson has plenty of improvement to make in order to be a truly great defender, he is not completely hopeless. He has the physical foundation to not only be a stout defender but a highly impactful one. He just needs to get better at how to use it. And he did make the right plays on several occasions during the preseason.

Here, Robinson stays square to Marques Bolden, slides his feet, and plays the shot straight up, using his 9-foot-3 standing reach to make the shot difficult. No jumps in sight. Just a big man defending in the moment. The Knicks need to train Robinson to contests shots like this more often.

On this Isaac Okoro drive, Robinson does jump, but he times it terrifically and doesn’t bump Okoro. Robinson is so athletic that he can wait until the shooter is about to release the ball to send it back. When Robinson does leave his feet to contests shots, he should do it in controlled and precise movements like this.

Another positive was his frequent communication. He was constantly talking to and directing teammates on defense, like in this play, where he and Kevin Knox are defending a pick-and-pop. Robinson picks up the ball-handler and directs Knox to take the shooter.

In addition to the work he needs to make on defense, Robinson has plenty of room (more so than on defense, in fact) to improve on the other side of the ball. Robinson has a very limited offensive skill set in which he literally only screens, dunks, and rebounds. While improving in the areas he is deficient in would be great, continuing to develop his strengths is more doable and likely to happen.

Growing Pains on Offense

Offensively, Robinson is a non-threat with the ball in his hands unless he’s in the restricted area. The threat of him getting a lob gives him some gravity, but assisted dunks are just about all he contributes as a scorer. Robinson’s other strong ability on offense is his rebounding. His offensive rebounding percentage of 13.7% ranked sixth in the league last season and ended the preseason in a three-way tie for most offensive boards with 14.

It seems unlikely that Robinson consistently looks to create his own shot, even in the post. New York has never used him post up or shoot any shots outside the paint. He still has value as a roller to the hoop—there aren’t many lobs that Robinson can’t catch and slam with authority thanks to his good hands and long arms.

Sometimes, though, Robinson tries to dunk when he should instead take a layup. In this play, Robinson has Sekou Doumbouya sealed and has the right side of the basket wide open. Rather than take advantage of that, Robinson tries to dunk on Doumbouya, which allows him to stuff the shot. Robinson adds insult to injury by committing a frustration foul, his fifth foul of the game.

Screening Is the Game

Robinson can become also become a more effective roller by setting better screens. There were too many instances in which he didn’t deter the on-ball defender. Robinson is no Aron Baynes or Steven Adams, but he’s still a big guy that should be able to provide some space for New York’s guards and wings.

However, that doesn’t always happen. And the failure to get separation with screens is not always Robinson’s fault. He does have a bad habit of making little contact and sticking his body out to make some. He’s just begging to get offensive fouls called on him when he does that.

Sometimes, though, it’s on the ball handler for not using his screen well enough. Elfrid Payton is way too far away from Robinson and his defender can keep up with him as a result. Tom Thibodeau and the coaching staff need to get the guards driving closer to Robinson to maximize him as a screen setter.

In this play, a Robinson screen opens up an alley-oop opportunity for Obi Toppin because Immanuel Quickley lets Robinson get set up behind his defender. Quickley blasts off out of a stationary stance, gets well in front of his defender, and tosses a lob to his fellow rookie.

Robinson’s offensive skill set is decreasing in demand with the arrival of another lob threat. New York used its eighth overall pick on Toppin, who offers explosive lob-catching/dunking abilities in addition to a well-refined offensive skill set. Toppin has already touted more shot-creating, passing, and shooting abilities than Robinson.

At the moment, Robinson’s defense is more valuable than Toppin’s, and it’s almost certain to stay that way. But the opposite is true for their offense abilities. Robinson’s role in the offense may start to diminish if Toppin builds any further on his well-rounded offensive playstyle.

At the very least, Robinson will be New York’s man in the middle that dunks and blocks, dunks and blocks. He can be a highlight producer off the bench with the game he has now. But if New York is counting on him to be a key piece of the team that finally breaks New York’s seven-year playoff drought, they’ll need to get more out of him.

Robinson didn’t show any signs of significant improvement during the preseason. He’ll be a restricted free agent at the end of this season. The contract he gets will be very telling in how much the front office believes in him. Will a third-year looking like roughly the same player build up faith with Leon Rose and company?

A mobile big man with shot-blocking instincts and a huge catch radius for lobs is just what any team would want at the five spot. Robinson meets that criteria but continues to be his own worst enemy due to his lack of discipline and unidimensional offensive skill set. Until the idea of Mitchell Robinson becomes better than the reality, it’ll be tough to consider him one of the key pieces for New York’s future.

 

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