If there’s an archetypal Mitchell Robinson play, it goes something like this:
Offensive player sizes up uncontested 3-point shot. He seems open. It’s the best shot in basketball, so he shoots. At this precise moment, a Mitch-shaped defensive-demogorgon appears, as if from thin air, to politely decline the shot’s claim to existence. Robinson — smirking — lopes back into the paint, a befuddled human composes himself on the 3-point line, and the Garden crowd roars with pure affection.
It’s a beautiful thing, really. And it happens quite a lot.
No center who played at least 1,000 total minutes in the NBA last season averaged as many 3-point closeouts per 36 minutes as Mitchell Robinson’s 5.7. In fact, no center in the last three seasons — since NBA.com began tracking that stat — has matched those numbers. So far this season, he’s dialed up the disruption even more, contesting 6.1 threes per 36 minutes, an absurd number.
It’s his trademark. Mitch feels about contesting shots the way Bobby Portis feels about shooting, or Frank Ntilikina feels about defense, or Knicks fans feel about, well, Frank. Robinson is offended, at a conceptual level, by people shooting anywhere within a 30-foot radius of his preposterous collection of limbs.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Knicks opponents shoot 14.5 percent worse at the rim (99th percentile) when Robinson is on the floor this season.
This lust to contest and change and otherwise terrorize the opposition is unequivocally a good thing, but it does have a downside.
This season, when Mitch is on the floor, opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage jumps up by 7.9 percent; by far the highest on/off differential on the roster. Translation: the Knicks are a worse defensive rebounding team when Mitch is on the floor. Whilst this is only a snippet of his defensive impact — which is overwhelmingly positive — it is an area of development to keep an eye on.
Teams shoot worse when Mitch is on the floor because he contests everything he can, but the cost of having your 7-foot-1 alien hurling himself around the court chasing shooters is that your 7-foot-1 alien isn’t in position to grab the rebound when those shooters inevitably miss.
There is a middle ground here. Last season Mitch was closer to that middle ground. Teams rebounded their own misses only 0.5 percent better with Mitch on the floor, a number much easier for the Knicks to stomach.
Last year Mitch had a positive impact on the Knicks defense, when the team gave up 2.7 points per 100 possessions less with Mitch on the floor. This year — in a relatively small sample — that number is trending in the opposite direction, with the Knicks actually allowing 4.5 more points per 100 possessions with Mitch on the floor.
Now, before we start down a rabbit hole of existential defensive angst, it’s worth stating the obvious: Mitchell Robinson is a defensive plus. These numbers are murky. There are no straight lines from defensive rebounding percentage to defensive efficiency to an unprecedented number of 3-pointers contested.
But they are connected, and they’re worth keeping an eye on. Mitch is young and exuberant, and quite understandably enjoys swatting entitled jumpers into whatever exists just beyond oblivion. He’ll tidy that up with time. This season, though, the Knicks need to be mindful of this tradeoff. Shot blocking bigs leave the defensive glass vulnerable, and the rest of the team needs to collectively limit this vulnerability. On this roster, with multiple skilled rebounders at all positions, that shouldn’t be a problem.
On the other end, by the way, Mitch is ravaging the offensive glass with a 16.7 percent offensive rebounding rate. Eat away on that end, young fella. This appetite for resuscitating possessions on offense just goes to highlight that this is not a rebounding ability issue, it’s a defensive control issue. It’s honing how and when to contest effectively, whilst sacrificing as little positioning as possible for the remainder of the defensive possession and successfully securing the rebound.
A bit more restraint hunting shots should also stand to help the other defensive blotch in the 21-year-old’s game: fouling. This was his biggest flaw last year, when he averaged a whopping 5.7 fouls per 36 minutes. It was a point of emphasis all of his rookie season, and despite improving towards the end of last year, the 11 games he’s played so far this season have been frustrating.
Mitch is averaging 6.6 fouls per 36 minutes, a number that needs to come way down. Annex some of these cheap fouls and he’ll be able to play bigger minutes. He’ll leave the team less vulnerable on the defensive glass, and, most importantly, he’ll become a better defender. Savvy and shifty players already leverage his precocious shot-blocking compulsion against him, baiting him out of position and duping him into leaving his feet. (That is, of course, a cardinal sin that makes Walt Frazier sad, which, in turn, makes the world sad.)
The foundations of an impactful and wildly athletic defensive anchor are already there for Mitch, but it’s the details that will catapult him to defensive stardom.
Offensively, he’s exploring the possibilities of a simple but devastating blueprint: sprint rim to rim, set screens, and roll hard.
Mitch as a roll man this season has been David Fizdale’s most lucrative source of offense. In 25 possessions, those plays are generating 1.6 points per possession, a gargantuan number putting him in the 98th percentile league-wide.
In contrast, Julius Randle, in just 13 possessions as the roll man this season, is generating 0.77 points per possession — putting him in the 11th percentile. Yikes!
For Robinson, as monstrous as this number is, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Mitch was the most effective roll man in the NBA last year: of players with a minimum of 100 such possessions, he generated a league-leading 1.46 points per play.
Randle, by the way, was in the 92nd percentile as a roll man last year, so this season’s small sample futility is somewhat of an outlier. His efficiency and pick-and-roll usage need to go up.
The Knicks have to be a pick-and-roll-heavy team offensively, and if we’re going by the numbers, Robinson has to be the engine. It’s one of the oddities of this early season (and a top-10 Fizdale Twitter gripe) that he doesn’t lean into pick-and-roll offense more.
To be fair, Fiz has upped Robinson’s usage from 12 to 18 percent this season; perhaps there’s an impression that we haven’t seen it as much because of the low minutes totals Mitch has struggled with game to game. Either way, Robinson making strides as an efficient offensive player this year — sucking in defenses and vertically spacing the floor like no other big on the roster can — is a big win for the Knicks.
Having your second-year defensive specialist cement himself as a two-way force is a pleasant development for an increasingly intriguing young Knick core.
Another developmental box ticked this year has been from the foul line, where the Knicks have struggled as a team through 15 games. Robinson, though, has jumped from 60 to 73 percent over the summer. It’s a crucial skill for a guy who puts constant pressure on the rim, and who the Knicks will need to be on the floor at the end of close games. Hack-a-Mitch isn’t, it appears, going to be a viable defensive strategy for teams.
Nowhere has Mitchell Robinson’s value been more evident this season than when he hasn’t been available. Whether it’s minor injuries or mindless foul trouble keeping him off the court, his absence is felt on both ends of the floor.
When he’s on the court, he steadies and stabilizes this Knick roster perhaps more than any other player. His unique skillset is already irreplaceable. This is rooted in more than just an all-time athletic toolkit — the speed of his development might be even more impressive than his freakish physical proportions. He started playing basketball later than most as a teenager, skipped any developmental lumps of even one year in college, averaged over 20 minutes a game as an NBA rookie and was a net positive immediately.
Given his sponge-like disposition, and the fast-track trajectory he’s already on, if Mitch can stay healthy; if he can navigate his way to a declining foul rate; if he can consistently strike the balance between defensive discipline and hunting shot blocks; who knows how good he can become.