NEW YORK — Mitchell Robinson is on his third season with his third coach and third mentor, with the same question lingering about whether he’ll finally graduate to New York’s starting center.
The Knicks aren’t betrothing starting spots to a roster devoid of All-Stars, and there will certainly be debate at center over Mitchell, the 22-year-old explosive prospect, and new signee Nerlens Noel.
Robinson carries the upside but also rawness. David Fizdale and Mike Miller were only comfortable enough to start him 26 games over two seasons, as foul trouble drained his minutes. DeAndre Jordan was tasked with teaching Mitchell as a rookie. Then it was Taj Gibson. Now it’s Noel.
“I just want to mentor him any way possible,” Noel said. “Whatever position we play throughout the season will play itself out. I want to be a big brother to him and give him a lot of advice throughout the season.”
Noel, 26, was a solid signing for the Knicks at $5 million, a defensive anchor whose career has already been a roller coaster. But it’s a one-year deal and Robinson has been promoted as a long-term solution.
Robinson, a 2018 second-round pick who took a year off after high school, is already eligible for a contract extension but, as of two weeks ago, the Knicks had not yet engaged in those discussions, according to a source. The team has the option to wait until after the season to re-sign Robinson as a restricted free agent, which would also require them to tear up his $1.8 million team option for the 2021-22 season. Knicks president Leon Rose has not spoken to the media in over four months.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence Thibodeau used the terms “professionalism” and “discipline” when describing Robinson’s areas that require growth. It certainly applies to on the court, where Robinson misses rotations and commits touch fouls. There have also been questions about his commitment, specifically regarding Robinson’s experience with the Team USA Select Camp in 2019. Robinson arrived late — “there were all kinds of problems getting him to Vegas,” a Team USA source said — and left a poor impression on coaches and staff, according to sources.
Robinson left Vegas early while citing a knee injury. He also left the Knicks’ voluntary minicamp in September for “personal reasons.” Assistant coach Mike Woodson traveled to New Orleans to work with Robinson, according to a source.
“He’s had some really good moments, but I think he’s got a long way to go,” Thibodeau said about his impressions of Robinson. “The work part, the professionalism to continue to grow to impact winning, there’s a lot of room for growth — I think the discipline to practice well each and every day.”
Thibodeau added that he’s excited to work with Robinson’s “unique” talent. He then pivoted to Noel.
“We’re very fortunate to have Nerlens Noel,” Thibodeau said. “In some ways, he’s very similar when you look at rim protection. I think he was second in the league. I also believe he was in the top five in finishing. We’re excited about both guys.”
The Knicks also drafted Obi Toppin, who is a natural power forward but could slide to center in small lineups. It’s going to be an interesting contest for frontcourt minutes.
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