New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson is a 21-year-old, 7-foot terror who protects the rim and scores with incredible efficiency. He currently leads the NBA in blocks per 36 minutes and points created per 100 possessions, and he’s the Knicks’ best player by a comfortable margin in RAPTOR, FiveThirtyEight’s new measure of a player’s per-possession effectiveness. Playing so well under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, you might think that Robinson is a megastar on the rise.
But Robinson has come off the bench just about as often as he’s started, and he’s averaging a paltry 18.4 minutes per game. For all of his impressive rate statistics — and he is averaging a double-double (19.8 points and 12.8 rebounds) per 36 minutes this year — Robinson can’t exert his influence on the game if he’s not on the court.
At least some of this comes down to Knicks coach David Fizdale, who is under fire early this season partly because of decisions like starting veteran Taj Gibson over Robinson despite Gibson’s vastly inferior rates. But Robinson has helped create this problem with his propensity for fouling — and Fizdale has said as much in explaining his rationale for moving Robinson to the bench.
“Taj gets us off to really stable starts and keeps Mitchell from the potential of getting into foul trouble,” Fizdale told Newsday last week.
But Robinson fouls so often that even this plan hasn’t helped much. He was disqualified after just 22 minutes on Nov. 14, was whistled five times in 17 minutes on Monday and mustered only 13 minutes against the 76ers on Wednesday after picking up four fouls. The Knicks, who lost by just 5 to Philly, could have used more from Robinson against Joel Embiid, but Embiid was able to use Robinson’s shot-blocking instincts against him a couple of times, drawing a foul once. With 6.6 fouls per 36 minutes, Robinson is the fourth-most foul-prone player in the NBA this season, rendering his incredible per-possession numbers largely moot and helping lead to the Knicks’ predicament as one of the worst teams in the league.
In fact, if Robinson keeps it up, he could join a not-so-elite group of players who performed like stars when they saw the court but fouled so much that they couldn’t stay on it for very long:
Some players fit this category early in their careers but were able to evolve into proper stars by playing with more discipline. Paul Millsap, for instance, was a fouling machine in his first few NBA seasons, but he eventually cut down on the whistles enough to log nearly 33 minutes a night in his prime. Yes, his block rate suffered as a result — but that was a small price to pay to stay on the court longer.1
Some, however, always leave their teams wanting more. Amir Johnson, most recently of the Sixers, was emblematic of this over his career: As with Robinson, his per-minute numbers were perennially amazing, but he averaged 5.1 fouls per 36 minutes in his career and never logged more than 28.8 minutes per game in any season despite owning a career RAPTOR plus/minus of +2.1. (There’s a reason he appears in the table above three times.) Before the season, Johnson showed up among Robinson’s 10 most comparable historical players — a bad omen for Knick fans hoping that Robinson can log enough minutes to become a true superstar.
Robinson isn’t the only player this season whose effectiveness has been limited by foul trouble. Washington’s Moritz Wagner is averaging only 19.3 minutes a night despite an eye-popping +9.1 RAPTOR because of an equally mind-boggling 7.5 fouls per 36 minutes. But most of Wagner’s RAPTOR is wrapped up in defense,2 so there might be more of a question about whether he can keep up his rates in more minutes while simultaneously fouling less.
For Robinson, though, he remains a player who looks like a legitimate star two-way big man in the making — if he can just cut down on the unnecessary fouls. There’s plenty of time for him to do that and cash in on his full potential, but for now he might be the best player in the league that you probably won’t even get to see play for 20 minutes on any given night.
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