• The Knicks' 2018 second-round pick Mitchell Robinson has remained a bit of a mystery but his tantalizing effect on defense is enticing to watch.
By Rob Mahoney
March 07, 2019

The best shot-blocker in the NBA is a gangly, 20-year-old rookie, drafted in the second round after playing no college basketball whatsoever to come off the bench for what would become the worst team in the league. This is the legend of Mitchell Robinson, one of the few redeeming factors in an otherwise putrid season of Knicks basketball. New York lacks painfully for competence. Most of their games are losses by design. Some teams are playing for the title, some for progress, others to prove something to their own impending free agents. The Knicks play for Zion Williamson.

On balance, this makes for a pitiable watch. Young players across New York’s roster fill roles they aren’t prepared for and often navigate the floor without any apparent regard for their surroundings. Then, for roughly 20 minutes a night, Robinson will take to the court and attempt to block everything. Layups, runners, pull-up jumpers, up-and-unders. Robinson isn’t picky; he will launch himself toward any attempt out of a some gluttonous indulgence, and the results are a shameless sort of spectacular. After entering Wednesday night’s disaster of a game against the Suns, it took Mitchell only minutes to swat a shot from Deandre Ayton, the prized rookie drafted 35 spots before him. Phoenix cleared the court for Ayton to work the left block, only to see his hook shot stuffed before it ever left his hand:

Later in that same game, Robinson helped to contain Devin Booker on a high pick-and-roll by unfurling his entire 7'1" frame to its maximum reach. Booker thought better than to lob a pass over the top, though in his discretion allowed his original defender, Damyean Dotson, to make a full recovery. Robinson sprinted back to the paint, his responsibilities fulfilled. He arrived just in time to erase a dunk attempt from Josh Jackson:

This is a play of absurd scale. It’s challenging enough for most bigs to get across the lane in time to block a shot in help. Here, a rookie center hedges high some 40 feet from the rim only to immediately cover enough ground to then stop a drive along the baseline. There isn’t all that much prudence to Robinson’s game as of yet, but he so often makes up for that on supernatural force alone. Robinson went on to block four shots in just 22 minutes against Phoenix, characteristic of a fairly typical day’s work. Robinson enters, buzzes around the floor in limited stints, and exits with a mix of riveting blocks and audacious mistakes.

It takes only the slightest whiff of a shot attempt to lure Robinson off his feet. With every 36 minutes of action, Robinson registers 4.5 blocks while fouling enough to disqualify himself. It’s enough to drive a coaching staff crazy, but also to pique their curiosity as developmental professionals. Any seven-footer this agile would be worthy of investment, much less one with savant-like instincts and timing. Robinson is a natural. So natural that he’s a bit fuzzy on the fundamentals, perhaps, but a natural all the same. Only one player—Manute Bol—in the history of Basketball-Reference’s database has blocked more of the opposing team’s two-point attempts while on the floor. And if anything, narrowing the frame to two-point attempts, while a kindness to most shot blockers, fails to capture Robinson’s full value. Part of what makes the young Knick such a curiosity are plays like this:

In a league where the lines of efficacy for the center position are constantly being pushed, a prospect like Robinson could be redrawn as an exception. In just 918 minutes, Robinson has blocked more total three-point attempts this season than any other player—and, for that matter, than half the NBA’s teams. When a shooter pulls up quickly after a high screen, Robinson springs into the air to alter the shot. After switching to cover quicker guards, he coaxes them into taking a three and then clips the shot in mid-air. Robinson even caught up to Troy Daniels on a step-back three on Wednesday, blocking what in many cases is an unblockable shot:

There’s something there, however niche it might seem. What makes the modern game so untenable for centers is the way a perimeter-dominated style mitigates what they do best. Pull a lumbering big out of the paint and not only might he drown in open space, but he’ll be less likely to grab a rebound and won’t work as a deterrent for a secondary attack. Robinson posits a counter theory: What if a seven-footer didn’t just hold his own at the three-point line, but actually added defensive value? What if the same player who protects the rim could also protect from the quick pull-up three? 

Robinson’s play, in its current form, is equal parts basketball and performance art. It’s unclear whether a player this aggressive in chasing blocks could actually be a winning contributor, in the same way that some of the best three-point specialists in recent years have been misleadingly unhelpful. There is so much more to pro-level basketball than command of any one skill. The mystery, in Robinson’s case, is the fun of it. Deep in the rotation of a team that has lost 23 of its last 26 games is a thought experiment brought to life—a shot-blocker whose internal mandate to leap at every attempt could actually help to break the mold.

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