It’s a divisive time to be a Knicks fan. We’re just 23 games into the season, and already so many factions and sub-factions have developed within our own rooting community. “Team Frank” vs. “He’s A Bust.” “Trust Fizdale” vs. “Hezonja, Really?” “Play The Kids And Tank” vs. “Make Everyone Earn Every Minute.” Before this season, every rational Knicks fan expected mostly blowout losses.
Now, mere days after Thanksgiving, so many of us have already forgotten everything for which we have to be thankful. This season is going to have more downs than ups. We know that. But, one thing we can be certain about is this: we picked a good one at 36. Twenty-year-old rookie Mitchell Robinson has shown that, not only does he belong in this league, but he has the goods to be an extraordinarily impactful player for years to come. Here, we’ll focus on his defense.
Robinson hasn’t just exhibited flashes of potential; he’s shown gamma-ray bursts of it (Note: I googled “brightest thing in the universe” because sometimes being a writer means putting in that research). Rookies rarely make a positive impact on the defensive end, but Robinson has been a defiant exception. Per The BBall Index’s Player Impact Plus-Minus (PIPM) data, 64 players in the league are 21 years or younger, and nobody has a better Defensive PIPM than Robinson at +1.9. Mind you, that group encompasses players in their sophomore seasons too, including Jayson Tatum, Thon Maker, and Zach Collins.
The most obvious area Robinson impacts the game is shot blocking. It’s easy to remember that he tallied nine blocks against Orlando in just 22 minutes (I choose not to remember that New York lost by 26). At 7’1 (in shoes) with a 7’4 wingspan and freakishly quick leaping ability, he has all the physical tools of an elite rim protector. Per NBA.com’s tracking data, he’s allowing just 56.9% at the rim, the best mark on the team. But, the impressive part has been his expertise in wielding those tools. He also possesses a combination of timing and feel to keep opponents’ shots from ever sniffing the cylinder. Per Cleaning The Glass, Robinson has swatted 4.9% of opponents’ shots when he’s been in the game, good for the 97th percentile among bigs. His shot blocking versatility really stands out. He can reliably disrupt shots in any context.
Pick & Roll
Watch here as Frank and Robinson team up to shut down this pick-and-roll against Indiana. Darren Collison, one of the fastest players in the NBA, rejects the screen hoping to gain a step on the defense, but Robinson is there with time to spare. He even secures his own block, a remarkable trend you notice when going through his rejections:
Against the Celtics, Robinson had the difficult task of defending pick-and-pop virtuoso Al Horford. He navigated it beautifully several times. Watch him snuff out this Marcus Morris drive off a side pick-and-roll, leading to a fast break on the other end:
This next play is perhaps my favorite of all of Robinson’s defensive highlights. It’s the perfect representation of his tools coalescing with his intangibles. Watch first, then I’ll explain:
First of all, this is good team defense all around. Kevin Knox gets a little stuck on that screen and the rest of the team pitches in allow him to recover. But Robinson does several individually noteworthy things:
- Active hands + defensive stance as he corrals Marcus Smart, stopping his drive really before it started.
- As soon as Knox is back in position, Robinson sprints back to his man.
- Because he was so quick to return to Horford, he found himself in the perfect position to reject a slicing Jayson Tatum.
- After he blocks the shot, he has the sense to try and throw the ball off Tatum to regain possession.
- His reaction says it all: he still wasn’t satisfied.
Another aspect of pick-and-roll D that Robinson has shown promise in is denying the entry pass to the rolling big. Whether he has switched onto the ball-handler, or he is hedging, Robinson’s length and timing seems to routinely surprise opponents:
Poor Dennis Smith Jr…Robinson doesn’t just feast off pick-and-rolls, though. He collects blocks in every situation:
Perhaps the most satisfying type of blocked shot is when an opponent believes he can just bully his way through Robinson. His first block of his career came on such a play:
Bam Adebayo thinks he can simply overpower the rook. The play fittingly ends in a fast break in the other direction. It was the first of many instances that the Knicks retained possession off a Mitch Rob block.
In the most recent blowout loss to the 76ers, early season MVP candidate Joel Embiid found himself on the receiving end of a couple Robinson blocks. This one came off an isolated post-up:
Again, he blocked it to himself…are you sensing a theme?
Watch how Robinson picks up Trier’s man on the fly (not sure who Zo was guarding on this one) as he blocks this transition three:
He even secured the ball again!
I’ll call this next one “semi-transition.” What really stands out here is how quickly Robinson recovers after his first jump:
The moment Robinson lands after contesting Nik Stauskas’s drive, he’s already reacting to Meyers Leonard’s unfortunate-looking push shot. Even better, he keeps the ball in play and sparks a fast break, resulting in easy points. That’s the pinnacle of Robinson’s effectiveness on the defensive end.
It should go without saying that there are many areas for improvement in Robinson’s game, even defensively. We all know he fouls way too much. He can become too enamored with blocking shots and leave his feet at the wrong time. He can rely too heavily on his athleticism to make up for poor positioning. But, I’m confident that this kid will be a part of the next good Knicks team. Whether he is paired with Kristaps Porzingis as an impenetrable two-center front court, or he anchors the second unit, Robinson has too much promise not to be an effective player. This kid is going to be a stud, and that’s not up for debate.