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‘Tis the season to appreciate Mitchell Robinson

A seasonal appreciation for the gifts of Mitchell Robinson.

NBA: New York Knicks-Media Day Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

After the wobbly first leg of their current campaign, few of us expected the New York Knicks (15-13) to find a winning streak in their holiday stocking—and yet they do, a five-game string that’s their second-longest since 2013-14. A key factor in this unlikely development has been center Mitchell Robinson. Lately, he has been the consistent player that the Knicks had hoped for when they selected him 36th in the 2018 Draft. Back then, his ability to meet their expectations wasn’t guaranteed.

Upon finishing high school as a McDonald’s All-American in 2017, the gangly kid from Louisiana was ranked eighth by the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. He forewent a stint at Western Kentucky, deciding instead that the next year would be better spent focusing on skill development in advance of the NBA Draft. Perhaps if the G-League had paid what it does now, Mitch would have gone that route, instead.

While his time in the woodshed might have benefited him as a player, the lack of college tape scared off some scouts, which helps to explain why such a physically-blessed athlete fell to the second round.

Physically blessed? At seven-feet tall and 240 lb. with a 7’4” wingspan, he looks like a runaway reindeer when sprinting down the floor. Killing a few minutes today, I played around with to see how New York’s 24-year-old rim protector compares to his draft class. Some of the stats surprised me:

  • Among his 2018 draftmates, Mitch ranks second in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes with 22%, and is nestled between Robert Williams at number one and Luka Dončić in third.
  • For general Win Shares, Mitch sits fifth behind fellow draftees Doncic, Trae Young, Deandre Ayton (the number one pick), and Mikal Bridges. Good company, indeed.
  • As for rebounds per game, Mitch ranks fourth in his class with 7.5 per game. That puts him behind only Ayton, Wendell Carter Jr., and Luka.

The Knicks used their ninth pick on Kevin Knox, who seems to be playing significant minutes in Detroit this season, but indisputably, New York’s better move of the 2018 Draft was their selection of Mitch.

Rebounding is Robinson’s hallmark, and twice he has recorded a personal-best 21 boards. Against Utah this past February, he grabbed 21 rebounds, 19 points, three blocks, and two steals in 36 spectacular minutes. (No threes, natch.) This year, he ranks third in the league with 4.1 offensive rebounds per game, behind only Steven Adams and Clint Capela, and he falls in the 99 percentile for both O-Boards and block percentage. Those second-chance opportunities have helped the Knicks to have the league’s 13th-best offense.

Ultimately, Robinson shines the brightest as a shot-blocker. The Blockness Monster boasts a career average of two swats a game and, when he’s on a roll, Mitch can easily send a half-dozen balls Spike Lee’s way. As a rookie in 2018, the then 20-year-old Robinson slapped nine (NINE) blocks in 22 minutes against the Orlando Magic. Little wonder why he was named to that year’s All-Rookie team.

Scoring is, unfortunately, mostly ornamental for Mitch. Offensive production continues to be an unimproved aspect of his game, no matter how many summer workout videos he posts. Over his career, he has taken 91% of his shots from within 0-to-3 feet from the rim and has no shooting range at all.

On the other hand, because he specializes in close-range, high-percentage buckets, Mitch holds the NBA’s single-season record for field goal percentage with 74% (2019-20). Still, it makes one salivate to think about the player he could be with the addition of a hook shot. Kareem Abdul Robinson!

Mitch has had breakout games, but they’re few and far between. In a February 2020 game against the Bulls, he scored career-best 23 points and shot 11-for-16 from the floor (no threes). More often than not, he’s a single-digit guy. His 7.3 points per game this season ties his rookie season for his lowest-career average. Nonetheless, this year’s Knicks have a +5.5 net rating when Mitch plays, so he does have a positive effect despite the lack of floor spacing. (See offensive rebounds above.)

Maybe Mitch is so good on the glass because he’s made of it? I kid…. Still, injuries have been a concern throughout Mitchell’s first five seasons. Surgeries on his hand (February 2021) and foot (March 2021) kept him out for prolonged periods, and his physical style has resulted in a concussion, plus injuries to his back, hip, knee, ankle, etc.

Since joining the Association, he has played in 245 out of a possible 334 games. Most notably, the Knicks could have used him in their failed 2021 postseason appearance, when they had to rely on the stone hands of Nerlens Noel instead. Their best season in years ended in a five-game, first-round playoff loss to the Hawks. It still stings to think about how Mitch could have neutralized Capela.

This season, a knee issue has already sidelined him for eight games. He played through an ankle tweak on Sunday against the Kings. The threat of injury taints every extended period of positive Mitchell play, while we wait for the inevitable walking boot to drop. It’s reasonable to wonder: if the Knicks do reach the postseason, will Mitch be present to anchor the paint?

His tendency to hack and whack has been another frustration. In his NBA career, he has fouled out 21 times. Who can forget that inauspicious November 2018 game in which he logged six fouls in nine minutes?

To be fair, he has demonstrated more discipline of late, and only twice this season has the whistle chased him to an early shower. Against the Atlanta Hawks this month, he committed no fouls (NONE! ZILCH!) while garnering 10 boards, eight points, and two assists in 26 minutes. That is serious growth—get your All-Star ballots ready.

The vibes are good after five consecutive wins, but they weren’t through the first quarter of the season. During that time the middling Knicks fell to a 10-and-13 record, and Sir Lobness had struggled to stay on the floor due to injury and foul trouble. With “trade season” set to begin on December 15, I suggested in late November that the Knicks might take calls about Mitch from potential trade partners. After all, reserve centers Isaiah Hartenstein and Jericho Sims (my favorite trampoline tester) have contributed solid minutes when Robinson sits.

Last summer, Mitch signed a contract with the Knicks for $60 million over four years. In a sly move on the part of team president Leon Rose, the annual amount descends from $17 million this year to $12.9 in 2025-26—and given that the salary cap is expected to increase over that period, this is a very tradeable deal.

“Relax,” sayeth Mitch and proceeded to step up his game. In the last the ten games, the Cajun’s been raging, averaging 10.7 rebounds, nine points, and 1.8 blocks in 28.1 minutes per outing. His market value might be at its peak, but now, with the Knicks showing signs of competency, the brass are unlikely to ship out their defensive anchor.

Will he break any of his career records this season? Of all the statistics, I’d wager that he could top 21 boards in a game; hell, he already grabbed 20 against the Bucks last month. How about 24, or 25? Seems possible. Mitch is greedier than Ebenezer Scrooge on the glass.

So enjoy your wreath of wins this holiday season, Knicks fans. While you’re at it, hang some mistletoe above the pride of Chalmette High (you’ll need a ladder). Mitch has been a major contributor to those immaculate vibes everyone’s gushing about. Barring injury, there should be plenty more to come.