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Despite the Summer League breakout, Mitchell Robinson has much to learn

Big Meetch might not be quite ready for prime time.

NBA: Summer League-Los Angeles Lakers at New York Knicks Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

We all know the story of Mitchell Robinson at this point. He’s a second round pick who fell because he skipped college in favor of preparing for the NBA...but didn’t appear at the NBA combine. After an occasionally dominant summer league performance, in which he put up numbers similar to the top big men in his draft class, it’s not crazy to think Robinson would have been a lottery pick in a world where the draft takes place after summer league. For a second round pick, that’s obviously incredible value; it feels even better to remember that it’s a result of the Carmelo Anthony trade. To top it off, Robinson provides a brand of out-of-this-world athleticism that should keep the highlight reels trained on Madison Square Garden for years to come. As a result, for Knicks fans, it’s all too easy to fall in love with Mitchell Robinson as a prospect.

When reviewing Robinson’s summer league tape, however, it quickly becomes clear that there are a multitude of issues lurking below the surface. Some are relatively minor, things that we can reasonably expect to be fixed by the end of this season. Others are significant issues, ones that could conceivably prevent Robinson from reaching his ceiling as a dominant two-way force. So, with that in mind, how good is Mitchell Robinson beyond the box score?

The term “freak athleticism” gets thrown around a lot in the NBA, as it should; 99% of the league is a freak athlete in one way or another. Even so, the 20 year old Robinson is clearly a step above. His size, wingspan, and leaping ability all jump off the screen, but there’s incredible stuff beyond that as well. The guy sprints down the floor like a guard. His leaping ability is spectacular, and his second jump is truly special. On top of that, he’s demonstrating the capability to move his feet well for a 7 footer, allowing impressive mobility and quickness. Basically, outside of his core strength, he’s a starter kit for a modern, athletic, rim-running center.

All that athleticism was really the main factor in his record Summer League performance in both offensive rebounds (6.2 offensive rebounds per game) and blocks (4.0 per game). The blocks are pretty self-explanatory; we’ve all seen the clip of Robinson charging out of the paint to block shooters behind the arc by now, and it’s pretty obvious that Robinson is already a talented shot blocker. The offensive rebounds, however, show just how much of a handful he can be.

Obvious caveat that I shouldn’t even have to say: this is summer league. Grain of salt. But that play shows it all. Look at the speed of Robinson, who easily gets behind his man after a mere quarter second of help. Robinson’s length is insane, and he manages to grab the ball despite being literally underneath the rim. He had tons of rebounds, much like this one, that would have been impossible for many bigs in the league. In this play alone, he showed off his speed, his length, his size, and his quality hands.

Right now, that’s really all there is to break down. As an overall talent on the offensive end, we’re talking about a young Clint Capela. Robinson has a nice touch around the rim when he isn’t dunking the ball, which suggests a Capela-esque skillset rather than someone like DeAndre Jordan. But while those two do the same things on the surface -- dunk the ball -- there’s a large gap between the two. Firstly, Robinson doesn’t have a great feel for the game at the moment. That makes sense, since he hasn’t played organized 5 on 5 basketball in over a year. The bigger issue for Robinson is his screening ability...or lack thereof. The following video features some of the more egregious examples:

While Robinson did show better screening as Summer League ran its course, he will need to get substantially better at both on and off ball screens before he’ll be playable at the NBA level. Right now, counting on Robinson to dislodge a defender with a screen is a gamble. The thing is, if he does connect on a screen, his ability to finish above the rim puts defenses in tough spots. If his defender is forced to help off by virtue of a good screen, Robinson gets the space he needs to finish.

Send help to stop Robinson, and your defense is scrambling to cover open shooters. But for all of that to happen, Robinson must make contact on his screens. If the screens fall flat and fail to create an advantage for his teammates, his defender can stay home, and the offense bogs down. This should be Robinson’s primary focus for improvement on offense, for now.

As a whole, though, all of that is great. When speaking strictly to offensive ability, Robinson could conceivably play at a backup center level (or better) by midseason if he works on his screens. That’s not to say he’d be great, or doesn’t have anything else he can work on -- there’s plenty of areas in which he could improve. But he has an offensive skillset that can brings an immediate impact. The center position, however, almost exclusively relies on at least some semblance of defensive impact. And that’s where Robinson shows his biggest warts.

The key to assessing Robinson’s defense is to ignore the gaudy block numbers. They were fun as hell, and they make for great highlights, but in this case, blocks and good defense do not correlate. Robinson has some excuses, and I’ll touch on that in a bit, but overall, Robinson showed poor defensive fundamentals in just about every way. Poor footwork on closeouts, bad positioning, awful fundamental habits...there’s a lot of work to be done.

Let’s start with Robinson’s infuriating habit of reaching for the ball instead of playing fundamental, “hands up” defense. I compiled almost every reach he committed in summer league; the video is just over two minutes long. Yeesh.

The crazy thing is, despite constantly reaching, Robinson still managed to block some shots (when he didn’t get called for the foul). That’s his athleticism shining through, as we discussed earlier. Against actual NBA level talent, though, those kind of habits are gonna get him fouled out in five minutes. Fortunately, much like his screening, this should be a relatively easy and quick fix. It’s not guaranteed, of course, but I’m not too worried about it.

Other areas of Robinson’s defense are a bit more concerning, however. All you have to do is turn on the Knicks-Lakers Summer League Spectacular and watch Alex Caruso pick apart the Knicks’ defense. On one hand...Caruso is a legit NBA player. And his specialty, running the pick and roll, happens to be a major weakness for Robinson. On the other hand...Robinson was picked apart all too easily, and it’s a clear example of what would happen if he played in a real NBA game tomorrow.

Here, Robinson isn’t close enough to the screen on the horizontal plane, while also playing too high up (Caruso isn’t a scorer, there’s no reason to step up on him). His poor positioning gives Caruso a nice angle to drop in the pocket pass for a dunk:

Just poor awareness on this one:

And for good measure, Robinson misses his help rotation on this pin down screen, which directly leads to an open 3:

Those are only the obvious examples, and there are plenty of those in the other games as well.

This is the meat of the major issues I saw. This is stuff that’ll probably take some time to correct. It’s reasonable to assume Robinson will improve as he continues to adjust to the speed of the NBA game, and his athletic ability grants him a bigger margin for error than many players. Even so, the iteration of Mitchell Robinson that played in Summer League will be unplayable on the defensive end at the NBA level despite his prolific shot blocking.

That being said, there’s a part of me that thinks I’m being too hard on the guy. By making a jump that is essentially high school to NBA, Robinson is going through an adjustment that we haven’t really seen in the modern NBA. He was clearly out of game shape; combine fatigue with a massive increase in game speed, and consider the requisite decision making even veteran college players can struggle to adjust to. Then realize his opponents were the best (and smartest) that he’s ever faced. On top of that, I’m not even sure the Knicks bothered to run a consistent defensive scheme in Summer League.

It’s a tough spot to be in. It’s like being a top 10 Overwatch player on the public ladder, owning noobs with insane mechanical skill. You can headshot anyone, all day long, and carry your team to victory. But you’re playing against amateurs. Skilled amateurs, but it’s different nonetheless. And then you take a year off, and during that time, you can only train your mechanical skills against bots. And when you finally return to full team’re at the highest level possible, where everyone has good mechanical skills. Now the focus becomes teamwork, communication, and trust. Except you never really relied on teamwork on the ladder, since you were so damn good (AAU ball). You were supposed to learn teammwork before reaching the pro scene, but you took an off year to train (skipping college). This analogy holds up for any team based video game; jumping into the highest level of competition after a year off, regardless of medium, could make any rookie look bad. Prime example: here’s Paul Watson (#16) telling Robinson to talk on defense after a miscommunication. Pay close attention to Watson’s hand after the play is blown dead:

Stuff like that is what makes Robinson even more intriguing. Just how much of the poor defensive performance was Robinson being completely out of his element?

Meanwhile, he was flashing the kind of shot blocking that makes GMs and coaches drool despite not really knowing what he should be doing. When he leveraged his length and used it to his advantage, it’s easy to see the framework of a monster at the rim. This was my favorite play of his -- even though his footwork is still shaky, Robinson managed to play the space between the corner shooter and the driving guard fairly well. If the ball got kicked to the corner, he can close out and bother the jumper. If the guard keeps it and goes up, Robinson can pounce on it. And that’s exactly what happens. This is an off-hand block, too, which is an underrated part of elite shot blocking:

We’ve already seen him sprint out to the arc and make impossible blocks, more than once. Robinson covered both threats from this play without overcommitting. Summer league opponents, of course, but that’s Anthony Davis type shit on the defensive end. That’s the kind of potential Robinson has defensively.

Will he reach his potential? If I had to guess, I would say probably not; he has a long way to go, and very few guys truly reach their theoretical ceiling. But the potential is real, and even it’s never fully realized, Robinson could be a starting caliber player down the road anyway. Adding a rim running, shot blocking, monster rebounding center to a team with Kristaps Porzingis already in hand is a dream. If Kristaps is defending out to the arc, Robinson will be stationed by the rim, and vice versa. Robinson can provide a vertical spacing element the Knicks haven’t had since Tyson Chandler. It’s a great pairing on paper.

With all of this in mind, preseason will be an important test for Robinson. If he shows improvement in the critical areas we discussed already, I would probably keep him on the main team and see what he can do in limited minutes. But if he continues to look overwhelmed, the Knicks would be prudent to send him down to the G-League. My personal evaluation always leads back to one single fact -- Robinson needs burn so he can adjust. Playing him in the big leagues would be a disaster. Letting him learn from Mike Miller and the Knicks development staff in Westchester would be a smart decision.

Clearly, Mitchell Robinson far from a sure thing. But a sure thing doesn’t exist in the NBA. For every LeBron, there’s an OJ Mayo, and for every Joel Embiid, there’s a Hasheem Thabeet. If Robinson even skims his ceiling, he would represent a historical steal, and even median outcomes could return massive value to a Knicks team in dire need of such luck. He, along with Kevin Knox, represents a new mindset from the Knicks front office. Upside, youth, and potential above all. Even if Robinson doesn’t work out...this is the kind of pick that puts faith in a fresh, unproven front office.