Mitchell Robinson, Damyean Dotson, and Allonzo Trier have made their marks on this Knicks team despite being unheralded second-round picks or undrafted first- and second-year players.
Be honest, this unit has more in common than you think:
A loud, honest coach, an eccentric owner, and a couple of under-the-radar athletes who stole your heart. Well, I know they stole mine. I’m sure they won’t be playing in a Game 7 any time soon, but Allonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson are easily among the most slept on players to enter the league this season. From Summer League to preseason to the double-overtime thriller against the Chicago Bulls, the undrafted rookie and the second-round pick have played larger than life in the world’s greatest arena.
Everyone remembers the move that sent the Warriors onto their run. It set in motion a sequence of events that revolutionized the league. Freeing Draymond Green may have been an event just as important as unleashing Steph Curry.
His first two seasons were pedestrian, and maybe Mark Jackson was in the right for keeping him from the starting lineup. Teams have a strange relationship with the word “development,” but this may have been one of the times when a player needed to be fed and watered so that he could blossom. What sticks out the most about Green’s improvement in just one season isn’t the point and rebound spike—it’s the assist numbers jumping from 1.9 to 3.7 to a perpetual 7-plus per game while solidifying himself as one of the greatest defenders of his era. Kerr embraced him. He didn’t see an undersized big who struggled with a shot; he saw a ball-handling forward who could be a triple-double threat every game with stellar defense. Kerr saw the potential of an uncanny anchor for his team, and Fizdale hopes to distill his young starting core in the same way.
The Second-Round Decision
Selecting Robinson in the second round of the 2018 draft was a bold move for a couple of reasons. Typically, freshmen are the most lauded of players who declared for the draft. That’s why they mostly end up as lottery picks. They’re budding athletes; legitimate ballers right out of the gate, and are treated as such. However, for some reason or other, teams tend to get safe in the second round of the draft, choosing upperclassmen a bit older than the lottery picks or foreign players who might even decide not to play in the NBA. Of the 30 selections this season, only three were ending their freshman year the NCAA level.
The Knicks took a different approach with Robinson. They saw his troubled past year and judged it as an opportunity instead of pearl-clutching about the “red flags.” Trier’s situation wasn’t much different. With a PED issue hovering above his head, he appeared to be a leper to scouts. Also, as a non-contender, what did the Knicks have to lose? The likes of Malcolm Brogdon and Draymond Green are hard to come by. More often than not they’ll pan out to be Branden Dawson. The rest of the league sees second-round picks as a piece of moderately valuable silver; they rarely seek to gamble on it. The risk is typically higher for the first-round pick, so why not double-down on a much less valued commodity? When the potential return is the same, why not double down on the high upside? You’ve already strayed away from playing it safe. The league’s M.O. while drafting is quite telling: the people in charge are lousy gamblers making rookie mistakes. But the Knicks knew they were playing with house money. And they scored big.
Along the Dotted Line
Damyean Dotson’s early season success can be credited to his resilience after an unsteady year under Jeff Hornacek, but Dotson’s selection ironically sprouted from the strategy bashed earlier: use a second-round pick for a contributor ready to play in the NBA immediately. It can be argued that he fell into New York’s lap because of the sexual assault allegations against him at Oregon. The nature of Dotson’s troubles and the Knicks consistently overlooking this form of wrongdoing is hard to swallow, and it requires more time and reasoning than a footnote praising his play on the court.
At 24 years old, he’s an old-timer for a second-year player. Presumably, he’ll reach his prime earlier than Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Robinson, Trier, and even Kristaps Porzingis. Which isn’t a problem. Dotson was pegged as a 3-and-D shooting guard from day one, but his other skills showing themselves have been essential to his starting role. So far he’s averaging 5.1 rebounds per game. Through the Knicks’ first 10 games, Dotson ranked among the top-10 rebounding guards in the league, per NBA Stats. Although he’s shot a slightly below average 33.3 percent from three this season, the Knicks use of the staple “floppy” set can only get better as the season rolls on. Fizdale’s move to “position-less basketball” in the last few games has obviously complemented his game. Even the three-point slump he’s in hasn’t left him ineffective. His toughness and athleticism complement the steady role he has as a starter. The argument that his mid-range game isn’t strong is valid, but he strays away from the low percentage shot often enough that it’s nearly a welcome deficiency. On the flip side, he’s shooting 68 percent at the rim. Although he’s not a true slashing guard, he knows how to use a screen and play in transition.
Beautiful drive here from Dotson. Goes right st the rim, finishes the up and under.
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 4, 2018
There’s not much more to ask of him if you have a first and second scoring option in your lineup. He puts himself in the right places and tries to stay out of the way while giving an honest effort on defense. What Fizdale has seen in Dotson is far different than what others would have. It’s easy to look at his game and say he has a low-ceiling, but looking at his strengths you can see how he can be a part of a solid foundation.
The Iron Giant
Mitchell Robinson came out of left field, but let’s not pretend that he wasn’t a top recruit out of high school. Still, there’s always the chance that the guy you chose is a bust. Luckily, Robinson is quite the opposite. On offense, he’s a blunt instrument. Screen and roll, corral a pass from the rafters, smash it into the rim, run back on defense, rinse, repeat. It’s the most rigid repetitive set of motions, but boy, oh boy, is it exciting.
BIG MITCH ROBINSON pic.twitter.com/FtX2Rk9SfL
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 3, 2018
He lacks plenty of offensive tools a big man should have, and his clearly defined capabilities make him the most predictable player in the NBA. However, the defense knowing your next move doesn’t matter much if they can’t stop it. Fizdale has embraced Mitchell “Lobinson” on offense. Because he’s not looking for him to be Rudy Gobert just yet. Like Dotson’s multi-position usefulness, Fizdale is more interested in Robinson’s intangible asset: energy.
To be frank, Robinson doesn’t quite stuff the stat sheet. He’s averaging 5.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game in 17 minutes (per Basketball-Reference). Those stats are comparable to the Chicago Bulls backup center Cristiano Felicio. Furthermore, through his 10 games played, he barely ranks in the top 30 in pace among centers. On paper, Robinson is one embarrassing backdown and posterization away from being considered a scrub. In reality, he’s an eye-test purist’s wet dream. The notion that “defense is based on effort” is an old adage we need to do away with, but for players like Robinson, it’s mostly true. He’s 7’1” with a 7’4” wingspan. Hardaway could throw the oop to the third floor of the Empire State Building and Robinson has the chance to come down with it. His lankiness plays into Fizdale’s offense as well—he doesn’t force Robinson to be a post player. He utilizes his agility to tire out the defense. Even if his screens don’t pan out, his defender is expending far more energy than they’re used to. They have to stick to him like they’ve been switched onto a small forward. A prime example is the Knicks game against the Mavericks, where, for a large part of the game, DeAndre Jordan, a hulking titan, was pestered by Robinson and ended the night with only four points. Prior to that game he was on a monstrous double-double tear. This early tip epitomizes how he can frustrate his man on defense.
Nice tip from Mitch to start the break, then slams home the putback on the other end pic.twitter.com/alNstPfIHW
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 3, 2018
If Robinson can further develop his skills on post defense, he’ll have designed transition buckets like that in his future. His help defense won’t be analyzed at length at this time, but we’ve all seen the athletic marvel in action. Clinical studies have shown that witnessing a block by Mitchell Robinson releases a similar amount of endorphins as seeing an open bar at a wedding reception. It’s unclear if the defensive instruction is taking hold for Robinson, but his presence is felt regardless. For the rest of his career people will remember his nine-block game as a rookie, but my favorite part about his defense is watching guards struggle. You can always see the exact moment when the ball handler realizes Robinson isn’t going to get any shorter and they desperately throw the ball elsewhere. There hasn’t been a rim protector at center for the Knicks since Tyson Chandler, and Robinson isn’t even close to his ceiling.
He’s 1-of-2 for jump shots this season, so if there’s a five-out offense somewhere in the Knicks future, the coaching staff is easing Mitchell into it, to say the least. As of today, Fizdale wants 20-year-old Mitchell Robinson to be the best 20-year-old Mitchell Robinson he can be. The jump shots will come later. The DPOY votes will come later. But for now, we’ll settle for the blocks, the lobs, and the transition buckets from The Iron Giant.
Last, but certainly not least, is Zo, Allonzo Trier, or The Iso-Zodiac Killer, as I like to call him. If there’s a League of Their Own reference in here, Trier is definitely Geena Davis. Trier is also the earliest case of the Embrace Movement. “I’m gonna let the kid be who he is,” Fizdale said in October. Through 15 games, he’s 11th in usage among rookies, per NBA Stats. In this early NBA season, in two starts and a double-overtime green light, Trier has shown that who he is may be the John Starks of the new millennium.
Undrafted and unheralded at the beginning of the season, he took his “Iso Zo” nickname and ran with it. The stats paint a beautiful picture. Through 15 games he’s posted 48-40-87 shooting splits while averaging 11.3 points per game, numbers not to be scoffed at.
When he takes the court, he’s the star, demanding the defense’s full attention like a veteran star on a regular hot streak. In the last couple of games teams have desperately resorted to double teams in order to contain him. The attempt to neutralize him has had modest success. This marks the next step in his evolution. Can he open up the offense with so much attention placed on him? Time will tell, but if this is his first step into the NBA, the second one—where he overcomes his first obstacle—will tell more about his future success.
How They’ve Fared
Dotson, Robinson, and Trier all have their strengths, and in the limelight of the starting lineup, they need every bit of upside to hang with the rest of the leagues starters. Mitchell Robinson leads the team in Win Shares (WS) per 48 minutes, with .173 and a box plus-minus (BPM) of 5.0. It’s not possible for Robinson to stretch the floor conventionally, so occupying his defender with constant movement by setting screens and offensive rebounding is what keeps him from being a net-negative on that side of the ball. Let’s not be naive: his saving grace, defense, catapults his advanced statistics. Ironically, advanced stats even tell why Kanter was benched in favor of Robinson. Currently, Kanter has the highest Defensive Field Goal Percentage (DFG%), shots made against him, among centers who have played at least ten games. It’s 60.7 percent. And, near the bottom, sandwiched in between Serge Ibaka and Joel Embiid is Robinson. He’s in the bottom seven with a DFG% of 41.9. Fizdale wanted lockdown D and now he’s got it.
Trier and Dotson both have troublesome BPM ratings. Trier’s WS per 48 is .057 and Dotson’s is .063. It’s too early in the season to put real stock in these numbers, but, although there are clearly woes, Fizdale’s bold move hasn’t been disastrous yet.
The New York Knicks are struggling. They’ve got a handful of neophytes and the rest of the roster desperately wishes to rebuild their careers. Coach Fizdale has decided to throw Dotson and Robinson directly in the fire as starters for the foreseeable future and entrusting Trier with the scoring load every time he takes the court. Frankly, the record is piss poor, and won’t amount to more than a top-10 draft pick. No one should expect major leaps this season, but if the Knicks’ unlikely heroes can hang with the breadth of talent already, the future is bright.