March 20, 2019

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The Perimeter Can’t Protect You From Mitchell Robinson

The Perimeter Can’t Protect You From Mitchell Robinson
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Back in November, Mitchell Robinson showed the world what he’s capable of.

Robinson, the rookie Knicks center, absorbed contact under the basket from Orlando’s Melvin Frazier and flopped to the court, hoping for a foul that was never called. Instead, the Magic passed the ball around a few times, finding a wide-open Jerian Grant in the corner, 22 feet from a supine Robinson.

In three seconds that defied reasonable expectation, Robinson got to his feet, raced toward the corner and leapt into the air. He fully extended his lanky 7-foot-1 frame and swatted the 3-point attempt out of midair so matter-of-factly that Grant pulled his hands toward his body, looking almost sorry that he had attempted the shot.

The block was Robinson’s eighth of the game, setting a Knicks rookie record (which he stretched to nine blocks by the end of the night). But beyond the block’s impact in the moment, the play illustrated the 20-year-old’s approach to this season. The perception may be that the Knicks are tanking in hopes of drafting Duke’s Zion Williamson, but for Robinson, any shot an opponent takes is a chance for him to get a block — and he is not going to be cheated out of any of them, even if the shooter is beyond the 3-point line. As a result, a mostly irrelevant team has become must-watch television.

The Knicks had not forgotten that November block when the Magic came back to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. The team posted a video of the play on Twitter, wondering if history would repeat. The post proved prophetic, as Robinson led the way in a 108-103 victory for the Knicks with 17 points, 14 rebounds, 6 blocks and 3 steals in 33 minutes off the bench. Four of the blocks came in just 40 seconds in the second quarter.

“The kid is making history right now,” Knicks Coach David Fizdale said of Robinson after the win. “He’s putting himself in groups with historic names. Every single day he continues to grow and get better.”

The Knicks’ two-game winning streak ended on Thursday with a disappointing 125-118 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But even in defeat, Robinson managed to add to his highlight reel, this time with a shot an opponent didn’t take.

It was early in the second quarter, and Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova got the ball with a clean look at the basket from 3-point range. As he prepared to shoot, he noticed Robinson a few feet in front of him and thought better of trying his luck, passing the ball instead. A few seconds later on the same possession, Robinson got his block anyway, swatting away a layup attempt from Marquese Chriss.

A rare prep-to-pro N.B.A. player as a result of his complicated withdrawal from Western Kentucky University, Robinson has been limited to 18.6 minutes a game as he works to refine his game, but he is still third in the N.B.A. at 2.3 blocks a game. When rated by block percentage, which estimates the percentage of an opponents’ shots a player blocks in his time on the floor, Robinson is nothing short of stunning, at 10.4 percent.

Basketball Reference has tracked block percentage back to the 1973-74 season, and the top-four seasons among players with 100 or more blocks belong to Manute Bol, the 7-foot-7 shot-blocking savant. No. 5 on the list belongs to Robinson.

Sample size obviously needs to be considered, but Robinson stands a chance of being the only qualified player beyond Bol and Alonzo Mourning to finish a season with a block percentage higher than 10. Rim protection luminaries such as Serge Ibaka (9.8), Mark Eaton (9.2) and Dikembe Mutombo (8.8) all fell short of that mark in their best seasons.

Robinson, who has quickly become a fan favorite, believes he is just getting started. He was asked recently how many shots he could block a game if the team let him play 30 minutes a night. “Probably around six,” he said. “I feel like I can get like six.”

The N.B.A. season record for blocks per game is 5.6, set by Eaton in 1984-85, yet Robinson’s boast does not seem all that far-fetched, largely because of his unusual ability to block shots along the perimeter as well as under the basket.

“His potential is crazy,” Emmanuel Mudiay, the Knicks guard, told reporters before Thursday’s game. “He’s probably the best shot-blocker I ever played with in my life. In my opinion, he’s the best shot-blocker in the league.”

Fizdale has said that Robinson’s confidence and execution have improved since the team acquired DeAndre Jordan to serve as his mentor. The numbers back that up, as Robinson has averaged 11 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.2 blocks a game since Jordan’s arrival on Jan. 31, while still averaging only 23.1 minutes a night. He has also continued to pester outside shooters, with eight of his 35 blocks in February coming on 3-point attempts.

Fizdale was asked recently if Robinson compared to any other players he had coached. The coach, who has worked with excellent rim protectors like Marc Gasol, Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Andersen, spoke about his rookie like a proud father.

“No,” he said. “He’s a different guy, and he’s got so much more room to grow. I’m going to keep my foot way up his butt to make sure he does.”

That could be terrible news for anyone looking to get a shot off against the Knicks in the coming years. They might find there is no place to hide.





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