Mitchell Robinson's journey from an unrefined prospect to one of the NBA's most dominant rebounders is a testament to the power of perseverance and patience in a league often defined by instant gratification
The NBA Draft is one of the biggest crap shoots that we have in sports today. The league has shifted in recent years to draft young 19 year old prospects with the potential to be the next superstar in the league. We have seen this manifest as intended with a player like Anthony Edwards, where a 19 year old is drafted and lives up to the potential a few years later. This is not always the case, especially in today’s climate that is defined by instant gratification and impatience.
NBA decision makers as a result demand instant success from young players, which feels a bit contradictory. It is very rare to see true development stories in the NBA, especially not ones with the same team that drafted them. This is what makes the progression and evolution of New York Knicks starting center Mitchell Robinson so unique and fascinating. Once a relative unknown from Chalmette, Louisiana and second round pick by the Knicks in 2018, Robinson has transformed himself into a defensive and rebounding force that is a testament to staying the course and hard work.
For most Knicks fans, the 2018 NBA Draft will be remembered more about who they didn’t draft as opposed to who they did. In the first round of that draft, the Knicks had the 9th overall pick and selected Kentucky swingman Kevin Knox. Knox was a player that hit all of the measurables that people want in the modern NBA; he was 6’7”, long, and could shoot the three at a decent level. Knox seemed like a decent enough prospect at the time, but in hindsight it is a draft blunder as the team passed up both Mikal Bridges and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to take Knox. Gilgeous-Alexander and Bridges have turned into stars while Knox is now on his 4th team and second stint as a rotation player with the Detroit Pistons.
Mitchell Robinson, the teams second round pick in 2018 was seen as a bit of a raw and unrefined prospect. He was a 7’0” center with a 7’4” wingspan that had the potential to run the floor. He was a bit of an enigma coming into the draft because while he had committed to Western Kentucky to play college basketball, he withdrew from the university to spend the year prepping for the NBA Draft, something that was unheard of at the time. Once he was drafted by the Knicks it became evident just how raw Robinson was. He had well noted maturity issues, which could explain why he has had 5 different agents in his short NBA career.
On the floor, his first few years were defined by foul trouble, limited minutes, and injury. In his first three seasons, Robinson only started in 23% of the team's games, averaging 23 minutes per game and over 3 fouls per game. But despite these obstacles Robinson showed tremendous potential as a defender and shot blocker, setting the franchise rookie record for blocks (9) against the Orlando Magic. Robinson continued to show potential, but as his rookie contract was coming to a close there were still maturity questions about Robinson, and just how much he was committed to basketball and the Knicks.
The 2022 NBA season was a turning point for Robinson. The Knicks were in the midst of a disappointing 37-45 campaign filled with drama around star player Julius Randle. But while that was happening Robinson was continuing to improve. He played in 72 games, continued to reduce his fouling, and became a defensive force for the Knicks who were 11th in the league in defensive net rating despite the lackluster record. This continued improvement gave the Knicks front office the confidence to re-sign Robinson to a 4 year/$60M extension. He was the first Knicks draft pick to be extended since Charlie Ward in 1999.
Then last season and this season is when meaningful change started to happen for Robinson. He fully embraced his role as a defensive anchor and rebounding machine for the Knicks. Last year he led the league in offensive rebounding percentage with 18.4%, which is good for 13th best all-time in NBA history. This season he has a 20.87% offensive rebounding percentage, which at his current pace would be the best offensive rebounding season we have ever seen.
When Robinson is on the floor, opposing offenses have been forced to adapt the way that they attack the paint, often adjusting their shot angles because Robinson has perfected a left handed block technique that has helped him to avoid committing as many defensive fouls. On the offensive side of the ball, Robinson is currently averaging nearly 6 offensive rebounds per game, becoming a key part of what the Knicks want to accomplish on that side of the ball. The team currently ranks 11th in offensive net rating and a big reason behind that boils down to the 6 extra offensive possessions that Robinson creates for the team every night he is on the floor.
Simply put, Mitchell Robinson has been a triumph for the Knicks in terms of the developmental process. For a team that has simply not been known for its patience and developing of talent, what Robinson has become is an indication in just how much things have changed in New York. And as Robinson progresses, one has to wonder if we are looking at one of the best offensive rebounders of all-time.
A Historical Path
Moses Malone owns a statistical record that may never be eclipsed. Malone is the NBA’s all-time leading offensive rebounder with 7,382 offensive rebounds. That number is 2,566 more rebounds than Artis Gilmore who is number 2 on the list. Malone was the combination of fierce rebounder and longevity that led to his tremendous success as a rebounder. Mitchell Robinson is far away from ever thinking about that record (he is currently sitting at 1,131 offensive rebounds for his career). But if we consider Robinson’s age, we may be looking at the best offensive rebounder in many years.
Robinson is only 25 years old. Given current sports medicine standards, it is not that hard to believe that Robinson could play for another decade at a relatively high level if he avoids major injury. We can assume that he can average 5 offensive rebounds per game for that period (accounting for a dip as he gets older and a rise in the next couple of prime years). We can also assume his general good health and that he will average 65 games played in those 10 seasons.
Taking those numbers into account Robinson would be looking at 3,250 offensive rebounds on top of his current total which would equate to 4,381 offensive rebounds. That total would put Robinson past Dennis Rodman for the 5th most offensive rebounds in NBA history. There is of course a lot of variance in these projections. Robinson could play more games or he could play fewer, and the injury element is the largest asterisk for these projections. But it is important to note that on his current trajectory, we are currently watching a rebounding savant that we have not seen in many years.
All this for a former second round pick that seemed to lack the maturity to be a professional basketball player. The Mitchell Robinson story is one we don’t see much in the current version of the NBA. Players are often discarded after a bad season or two. Patience is not a virtue that many NBA teams seem to exercise. But in this case the Knicks did. And it has paid off with a player that defines much of their identity and is the best rebounder the team has seen since Charles Oakley. Robinson is a success story in development and perseverance, two things that are in short supply in today’s NBA.