Mitchell Robinson is just getting started

Remember Little Shop of Horrors?

The horror/sci-fi/rom-com/musical period piece from 1986? The description says all you need to know. It should have been too audacious to work, except for the fact that it was so audacious, it worked perfectly. I mean, Rick F’ing Moranis plays the lead, opposite a giant, man-eating plant voiced by the lead singer from the Four Tops. That about says it all.

I thought of the movie recently when I was trying to find a parallel to the season Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson is having. During New York’s just-ended 18-game losing streak, I found myself thinking of Robinson a lot. As other young players on the roster had positive moments here and there, it seemed like every minute Mitch was in the game, he was doing something good. He was routinely – and quite loudly – announcing his presence on the court in a way that made his emergence as a two-way force seem almost obvious.

Less obvious is why LSOH is the perfect avatar for this precocious wunderkind. Like Robinson, LSOH was and is something we’ve never seen before…a movie that throws a bunch of shit against the wall and yet somehow creates a masterpiece.

Mitch, meanwhile, already has a special place among the NBA lexicon because he still hasn’t met a block he doesn’t like. At the rim, midrange, behind the arc, centers, wings, ball handlers, late clock, early clock, stars, nobodies…it’s all the same to him. Jumping at such a variety of attempts should result in disaster, but just like the movie, it hasn’t.

The nature of the rejections or the rate at which they are coming – he’s leading the league in blocks per 36 minutes among guys who’ve played at least 500 minutes – are not the reasons why I thought of the movie though.

No, the reason why LSOH is being remade as the 2018-19 Knicks season1 is because like the true star of the movie, Mitchell Robinson’s game keeps growing…and growing…and growing some more, with no end in sight. Even better, it’s getting nastier by the day. He is becoming a monster before our very eyes…one that deems your shit to be unworthy, and he will vanquish it accordingly.

On the surface, he might look like the same player as he was in October. In fact, when I sent out a recent tweet suggesting he had grown by leaps and bounds since Vegas Summer League, a few people responded that, no, this was essentially the same guy.

Let’s quickly dispel with that notion. If your memory of last summer’s fake games is fuzzy, refresh it with Zach Diluzio’s phenomenal piece on the subject. He details how, despite the obvious talent, Mitch struggled in several aspects of the game, including but not limited to screen-setting, footwork on closeouts, positioning, and general fundamentals. It’s why, like Zach, I though he was destined to spend a good portion of the season in the G-League.

Hey, guess what has two thumbs and shouldn’t make predictions!

When the real games started in October, not only was Mitch getting playing time with the big club, but he looked downright competent in the process. That was impressive in and of itself. What he’s done in the four short months since then is downright astounding.

Let’s start with the foul issues, Robinson’s most glaring bugaboo. Following an initial feeling-out process in October, in 15 November games, Robinson averaged 7.6 fouls per 36 minutes. Among 280 players to see the court for at least 250 minutes that month, that figure was dead last2.

It wasn’t hard to see why either. Mitch left his feet when the shooter so much as thought about pump-faking. The results spoke for themselves.

Since November, Robinson has steadily decreased his hackin’n whackin, dropping to 6.7 fouls per 36 minutes in December, 5.8 in November and just 4.3 so far this month. That it hasn’t hurt his ability to be a human Magic Eraser3 one bit makes it all the more impressive. On the year, opponents are converting 4.9 percent fewer shots when guarded by Robinson. That’s among the league leaders for high volume defenders and is just ahead of his more ballyhooed classmate, Jaren Jackson Jr.

Overall, the effect that Big Meech4 has had on the team’s defense has improved as well. For the months of November, December and January, the Knicks gave up between 109.7 and 110.9 points per 100 possessions when Mitch manned the middle. So far this month though, that number is an even 100.0. For the season, New York has a 107.8 defensive rating when Robinson plays, which would rank ninth in the league and is nearly five points better than their actual number.

Aside from his penchant for fouling, the other major knock on Mitch’s game early on was that he didn’t rebound the ball like a seven-footer with his leaping ability had any right to. Prior to the ankle injury that kept him sidelined for a month between December and January, Robinson’s total rebound percentage was a paltry 10.7 percent, which ranked 78th out of 91 centers through the end of 2018. Since the new year started, that’s bumped up all the way up to 15.3 percent. At 37th out of 86 centers during that time, it’s far from elite but is more than respectable. His 14.1 rebounds per 36 minutes since the calendar flipped to February – higher than Joel Embiid during that short span – means the best may be yet to come.

There are other small signs around the periphery as well. While all of the attention has been on how much less he’s fouling, Robinson is also drawing fouls at a greater rate. Pre-December injury, he was getting to the line just over once per game. Since coming back, that number has more than doubled. His shooting from the field has also reached astronomical levels. Since January 1, of the 309 players averaging at least 15 minutes per game, his 76.4 effective field goal percentage is second in the league.

Again: dude didn’t play basketball for a year.

Are there still things to work on? Of course. For starters, he’s still averaging a hair under 18 minutes per game. The reason he’s not on the court more despite the gaudy numbers is because it would disrupt the tank his conditioning is still a work in progress (although six of his top 11 minutes totals have come since January 27). He also hasn’t shown the propensity to shoot, like, at all. For the season, he’s taken exactly three shots outside of five feet from the basket. His trainer Marcell Scott has already spoken about upping that number.

So yeah…New York has itself a legit, honest to goodness prodigy on their hands. That news is both good and potentially incredibly complicating.

Whether or not Knicks fans want to hear this, the team is absolutely going to put itself in the running for Mitch’s summer workout buddy, Anthony Davis. The Pelicans, justifiably, are going to ask for the moon. I’m not going to get into whether it’s the right move to clear out the cupboard for a 26-year-old generational talent entering his walk year, because considering the ramifications that it could have on free agency this summer, that’s an article unto itself. What’s notable here, though, is that there’s one very important thing that could wind up keeping Mitchell Robinson in orange and blue even if the Knicks go out and get themselves a Brow: money.

If the Knicks want to retain enough cap space to add two maximum salary players5

Here’s where things gets tricky: Anthony Davis makes $27,093,019 next season. Due to the NBA’s salary matching rules, the Knicks would need to send out at least $21,674,415 in any trade. The numbers get tight here, and where New York ends up selecting in the draft could play a large role as the 5th pick makes almost $3 million less than the first pick.

Regardless, this much is clear: the Knicks will need to send out their own 2019 draftee and Kevin Knox, along with Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina in order to have any chance of the money working out for Davis[footnote]again, assuming they’ve spent all their cap space on two max players. Mitchell Robinson makes so much less than those players ($1.5 million next season) that his salary won’t tip the scales one way or another.

So what does that mean for Robinson? Maybe nothing. For as amazing as he is, is Mitch really going to be the deal breaker in getting AD, especially when acquiring Davis in principle before free agency begins could seal the deal for KD and a super friend? Probably not, but the point should still be made: should the Knicks brass take a hard line stance that New Orleans has to leave them with one of their kiddos, because of how little he makes, the default kiddo in that scenario almost has to be Mitchell Robinson.

This, of course, is getting wildly ahead of ourselves. If the Knicks find themselves in a place where they even need to have these conversations means a) the summer has gone exactly as planned and b) Robinson continues to progress at a rapid rate. For as crazy as the first part seems, the latter now appears more likely than not.

In a horror movie of a season for fans everywhere, that alone is something to be excited about.

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