This Center You’ve Never Heard of Is More Efficient Than LeBron James

Source Composite Sean Culligan/OZY; Image Getty

Why you should care

Second-year center Mitchell Robinson has already proven to be a diamond in the rough. So why won’t the Knicks take off his training wheels?

Just weeks into the season, the tumultuous merry-go-round of mismanagement is already gaining steam at Madison Square Garden. After a 20-point loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry took the unusual step of addressing the media. 

“Scott and I are not happy with where we are at this point,” said Mills. “We need to find a way to have a consistent level of effort and deliver the product that we promised at the start of the season.”

The sentiment has been interpreted as a tactic to shift blame onto second-year head coach David Fizdale — thus continuing the Knicks’ two-decade cycle of coaching turnover, front-office blunders and overall dysfunction. And it’s once again risking the future of valuable young players. RJ Barrett, the second overall 2019 draft pick and the Knicks’ third-leading scorer (15.8 points per game) is a chaos-proof star who will shine in any setting. Forward Kevin Knox, 20, is less of a sure thing, though he appears to have a long career ahead of him. Then, there’s Mitchell Robinson. 

An athletic 7-foot-1 center and elite rim protector, Robinson is a project. He’s also the type of talent that, if allowed to flourish, can help stabilize a franchise rebuild. But with Fizdale now fearing for his job, Robinson has been relegated to the bench in favor of the veteran Bobby Portis. That’s a big mistake. 

Robinson currently ranks third in the entire NBA in player efficiency rating (PER).

That means he trails only Giannis Antetonkuompo and James Harden, heading into Wednesday night’s games. PER attempts to boil all of a player’s statistical contributions into one holistic performance rating.

“[Robinson] is a beast,” says Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, Robinson’s teammate in New York last season. “He’s going to be really good. He made me better every day in practice.”

Robinson was the 36th overall draft pick in 2018 and has NBA-quality attributes — elite defensive instincts, rebounding and above-the-rim play — that have long been apparent, but his lack of touch and awareness on offense has taken time to improve.

Robinson — who briefly enrolled at Western Kentucky but never played a college game — finished last year with a respectable rookie stat line (7.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game). His 2.4 blocks per game ranked second in the NBA behind Indiana’s Myles Turner. This offseason, he has reportedly added a three-point shot to his arsenal. Still, Fizdale doesn’t seem to trust the 21-year-old. After missing the season opener with a sprained ankle, Robinson started six straight games while posting those astronomical PER numbers. Yet, struggles with foul trouble caused Fizdale to keep the center on a short leash. Robinson is only averaging 18.9 minutes per game. On Nov. 6, as a reserve against Detroit, Robinson suffered a concussion and subsequently missed two games. 

Miami Heat v New York Knicks

Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks makes a slam dunk during the first half of the game against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Source Sarah Stier/Getty

“[Robinson] has handled everything we’ve thrown at him really well,” says Fizdale. “But he’s still raw. We’re trying to find the most productive starting unit, and sometimes that means [Robinson] will come off the bench.”

The Knicks will undoubtedly miss the playoffs. At present, they’re an uninspired bunch. So while Fizdale searches for an answer by playing veterans like Portis, Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson and Julius Randle — all of whom Mills and Perry signed as free agents this summer — players like Knox and Robinson waste away. If the front office is worried about effort, guess which players will play hard every night in the midst of a losing season? Young players anxious to cut their teeth and prove that they belong in the NBA. Players like Mitchell Robinson. 

Not only is Robinson the one true center on New York’s roster, but he’s also one of maybe four players likely to be on this team in three years. He’s the type of ranging, high-energy big who can understandably make coaches feel uneasy. He has no dominant post move, is not an adept passer, and holes in the defense can open when he misses on one of his many shot-block attempts. But Robinson has the skills to develop into exactly the type of elite, versatile big man that is changing modern basketball. That asset is more important than avoiding yet another brutal win-loss record.

It’s no secret: Eventually everyone in charge of the Knicks, outside of owner James Dolan, will be fired. But the best way forward for this franchise is to develop young players like Robinson, Knox and Barrett. The sooner they accept that, the sooner this clumsy cycle of Knicks history may finally fizzle out.

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