Mitchell Robinson has brought his best self to the court following his extensive time off with injuries, showing the Knicks just what he may be worth this offseason.

One of the biggest questions going into the summer after the remarkable postseason run was “what does the future hold for Mitchell Robinson?”. The big man has always been a somewhat divisive figure amongst the fanbase when it comes to conversation about potential salaries and long-term importance. Whatever concerns were held about him prior were increased exponentially with his injury-riddled 2020–21 campaign.

Robinson missed over half of last year with injuries which did not instill confidence in the fan base that was looking for proof that he was worth major money. After missing a few weeks of games for a hand injury, he returned to action. In his fourth game back, though, he was sidelined with a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot. His second surgery of the year was enough to end his season after just 31 games. The history of big men with feet injuries is not a pleasant one to think about, and added even more context to what risks could come with paying the young center.

The offseason was not one that helped foster belief in Robinson, and created just as many questions as it answered. With Robinson’s contract being up at the end of the 2021–22 season, there was a lot of intrigue on what negotiating would be occurring from either party. While some assumed that the Louisiana native would take the contract offered as a safe option for a player returning from injury, that was not the choice made. Instead, he bet on himself and that he can earn himself more money by showing what he can do when healthy. The Knicks are paying the last $1.8 million of his rookie contract, but are open to bringing him back in the offseason “as long as it’s not crazy.”

CENTER MARKET

While very few would explicitly critique Robinson’s game, the bigger question has always been about contract value compared to in-game performance. A vocal minority has clamored for years that he would need significant money or even a max contract once his rookie contract is over. Others, however, have been pushing to trade him for any decent role player out there in fear of losing him for nothing.

The market for centers is one of the big underlying questions throughout this narrative. The market correction on what big men get paid has seemingly swung back like a pendulum from the days of Timofey Mozgov getting $16 million annually. There are 10 centers in the league that are currently making more than Mozgov’s infamous Lakers’ contract. If that is the going rate for top starting centers, should the Knicks be looking to pay that to Robinson on the open market?

That list of centers is led by last year’s MVP (Nikola Jokic) and DPOY (Rudy Gobert) as well as Joel Embiid and Karl Anthony-Towns as the deservedly highest-paid big men in the league. However, as you move down that list you see both players Robinson has been compared to, as well as rumored to be traded for, such as Jarrett Allen and Myles Turner. Those types of players give a chance for comparative analysis when determining Robinson’s value.

HOT START TO THE SEASON

While the fourth-year center’s timetable was kept under wraps in the offseason, the reports were always vaguely positive. After he had missed the first three games of the preseason, many doubts were cast about his health. However, he has not only come back to start in every game, but has done so in a strong way. The 6’11” athlete has looked strong and fast as he came out the gate like a wrecking ball. He has been a difference-maker on both sides of the ball with extremely efficient offense and absolutely stifling defense.

Finishing at the rim has never been an issue for the bouncy big man, but this year he has taken it to the next level. While it is a small sample size, he is shooting a wildly impressive 83% from the field, 12 whole percentage points better than his career average. He is also averaging a career-high in minutes per game, playing nearly 30 minutes a night. That is not only important to show his health and recovery from injury, but also that he is not having the issues with foul trouble that he had earlier in his career.

Robinson continues to show himself as the elite shot-blocker that he has been his entire career, however, this year brings added layers to his defense—specifically, the added strength. There is a noticeable difference on the defensive end. Not only is Robinson not getting pushed around, but now he is doing the pushing. He has been an absolute force, bullying his opponents and imposing his will on them. He has made the game difficult for opposing bigs, even the best in the league.

The shot-blocking and rim protection is the bread and butter of the now-starting center. He has a massive gravity on the defensive end of the court and impacts nearly every possession he is involved in. Just his presence alone makes it hard for offenses to score and takes away easy opportunities at the basket. His blocks are down from years past but his impact on rim protection speaks to his growth as a defensive anchor.

LONG-TERM IMPACT

While Robinson will have games where he struggles, this is a contract year and that means that every game is like a league-wide job interview. That is visible with the effort night in and night out, but also the work that was clearly put in during the offseason. It has been impressive to see how he has returned from this injury, but there is a lot of season left to play.

Not only does the team need to see the sustainability of the big man’s performance, but also his health. Last year, he played the first 27 games of the season before injuring his hand. His comeback was halted after just three games due to an entirely different injury. When evaluating the 23-year-old’s value, health will play just as big a role as performance, if not more.

It remains to be seen how other teams value the young big man, and the market may reflect that. It would appear as the two parties would want to stay together as it has been an unlikely success story on both sides, but it is entirely plausible that another team will push the price too high no matter what happens from here until the end of the season.

It is an ongoing story and a part of the Knicks narrative; every decision that has been made in the last two years has been discussed around the idea of how it impacts the future with Robinson, and that will not change anytime soon. Rumors will certainly circulate as the trade deadline approaches and teams show interest in the talented center, just as they have for the last two years.

LOOKING AHEAD

The Knicks battle the top of the Eastern Conference and with that some elite big men around the league in the ensuing games.

Tonight’s game against Milwaukee will allow Robinson to try his hand at stopping the unstoppable force that is Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim. Following that up comes a back-to-back against the young frontcourt of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley in Cleveland, and a rematch with Joel Embiid and the Sixers shortly after. Embiid will certainly have his calendar marked for redemption against Robinson.

 

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