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The Knicks’ Rookie Center Is A Statistical Enigma

Mitchell Robinson is a unicorn. His forte is shot-blocking in an era when offenses are designed to attempt field goals 25 feet from the rim. On offense, the almost-21-year-old rookie shoots mostly at the iron — and “shooting” is probably not the right word to describe what he does with the ball on offense, since nearly half of his field-goal attempts are dunks. Robinson stands 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan, so it’s hardly a surprise that he is virtually unstoppable around the rim, explaining his 68.2 field-goal percentage that would lead the league if he had enough attempts.

Robinson’s skills run counter to today’s game. And the various performance-rating systems disagree radically on how to assess his value. Maybe he’s one of the best rookie players in NBA history, as is indicated by win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) and Box Plus/Minus (BPM). Or perhaps he’s just a bottom-rung NBA center, as ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) system says. On the one hand, Robinson is a player who can go a long way in helping pull the Knicks up from the pit in which they’re currently mired as the NBA’s worst team. But on the other hand, he is a mere statistical mirage to Knicks fans so thirsty for hope.

There’s not even broad agreement on Robinson’s defensive prowess, despite his historic rate of blocking shots. While rejections are not required to be a great defender, it’s the most obvious manifestation of stopping an opponent from scoring. And in this area, Robinson is unquestionably a generational talent. Forget about being tied for 12th since the 1983-84 season1 with his (current) streak of two or more blocks in 22 straight games. Sure, only three other rookies have topped that. But even more impressive is that he’s blocking an all-time best 10.9 percent of 2-pointers, a stratosphere that no NBA player has approached since the heyday of 7-foot-7 Manute Bol three decades ago.

And Robinson is blocking 3-pointers, too — though that might remind Knicks fans of the team’s best chance for its only championship since the Nixon era, which was snuffed out by an athletic center who ventured out beyond the arc.

ESPN’s RPM doesn’t even rate Robinson’s defensive performance highly. He’s just the 46th best defensive center this season — likely because, according to RPM, his shot blocking doesn’t do much to help his teammates stop opponents from scoring.2

In BPM, however, Robinson’s on-court performance is placed in the context of an average player on an average team, according to Basketball-Reference.com. This metric says Robinson is the best defender in basketball, at 5.7 points better than average per 100 possessions.

If BPM is accurately assessing Robinson, he’s on pace to become one of the better second-round draft picks of all-time — and certainly the best, value-wise, in recent Knicks history. Robinson is having the fourth-best rookie season ever by this metric,3 at 6.3 points over average on an average team. But the rookies ahead of him — 1984-85 Michael Jordan (8.2), 1975-76 Alvan Adams (6.7) and 1989-90 David Robinson (6.5) — were all Top 4 picks. Mitchell Robinson was picked 36th overall.

Mitchell Robinson is in elite company by one metric

The best rookie seasons in the NBA by Box Plus/Minus

Player Age Team Season Box +/-
1 Michael Jordan 21 Bulls 1984-85 8.2
2 Alvan Adams 21 Suns 1975-76 6.7
3 David Robinson 24 Spurs 1989-90 6.5
4 Mitchell Robinson 20 Knicks 2018-19 6.3
5 Chris Paul 20 Hornets 2005-06 6.1
6 Arvydas Sabonis 31 Trail Blazers 1995-96 5.6
7 Tim Duncan 21 Spurs 1997-98 5.5
8 Magic Johnson 20 Lakers 1979-80 5.5
9 Rich Kelley 22 Jazz 1975-76 5.4
10 Larry Bird 23 Celtics 1979-80 5.3

Among players who qualified for the minutes-per-game leaderboard.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Robinson has barely played compared with those all-time rookies, averaging just 19 minutes per game. And even with that limited amount of playing time, the rookie appears to have hit a wall of late, scoring 2 points or less in four of his past six games (but 30 combined points in the two others).

WS/48 is equally effusive in its praise of Robinson for the full season. This system explicitly adjusts all players as if they’re hypothetically playing a full, regulation 48 minutes — one-fifth of the court time. So you take his rate and multiply it by five and get an expected winning percentage on a hypothetical team with five players exactly like him. That means a Knicks team of five Robinson’s (.211 WS/48) would never lose a game. Who needs Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving?

Perhaps opposing players can settle the issue. After all, talent knows talent. The Knicks are such a perpetual laughingstock that Robinson can escape notice. But Joel Embiid, hardly quick to praise opponents, opined after being repeatedly stuffed by Robinson that Robinson’s “long-ass arms” and athleticism give him a chance to be a top center.

In typical Knicks fashion, the lottery picks New York has earned for losing so often have all become nonfactors. Kristaps Porzingis was shipped to Dallas to open up cap space that the Knicks hope to use to attract top free agents like Durant and Irving (rinse, repeat). And what all the player evaluation systems agree on is that Frank Ntilikina (drafted eighth overall in 2017) and Kevin Knox (ninth, 2018) are terrible players. Knox (minus-.028 through Sunday, according to WS/48, is essentially tied in having the eighth-worst rookie season in the 3-point era, a year after Ntilikina waged what is now the 11th-worst (minus-.026) rookie campaign. The only thing that could salvage these apparent early mistakes is recouping major surplus value with the Robinson pick. But that’s largely dependent on which of the major player performance models proves most prophetic.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Which is as far back as the data goes.

  2. RPM also adjusts for opponent quality, so if Robinson is playing against the guys at the end of the bench in garbage time, his play won’t grade as highly.

  3. Among players who qualified for the minutes-per-game leaderboard.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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