Knicks: Why Mitchell Robinson is the long-term answer at center

The New York Knicks starting center job is up for grabs entering training camp, but it shouldn’t be. Mitchell Robinson should not only be the starting center for this season, but the Knicks should extend him long-term, too.

At the start of the 2020-21 NBA season, Robinson was positioned to be the starting big man after breaking the all-time field-goal percentage record previously held by Wilt Chamberlain in 1972-73.

Robinson did hold the position, starting 29 of 31 games he played. But as mentioned, he only played 31 contests due to injuries. Nerlens Noel took over and excelled as the Knicks earned the 4-seed. And because of such play, the starting job this year is up for grabs.

The New York Knicks haven’t named a starting center yet for this season, but it should be Mitchell Robinson — for this year and for the long term.

It’s understandable to not write off Noel after a successful run in the starting five, but once training camp begins, Robinson should begin to show why he’s more deserving.

For starters, Robinson and Noel have similar styles of play in that both centers rim run, protect the paint and are lob threats. The differences are key, though. Robinson is more athletic and has proven to be a better overall shot blocker, especially on the perimeter in which he has a knack for blocking jumpers.

And such contests aren’t just about the blocked shot. Rather, it exemplifies Robinson’s ability to step up on a perimeter player in a pick-and-roll scenario. The Knicks can take advantage of this and be flexible on defense, potentially opting to switch defensive assignments.

Robinson’s length and quickness off his feet also help make his defense so lethal. He’s just 23 years old and will turn 24 in April, so his bouncy and athletic nature shouldn’t dwindle anytime soon.

Noel, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same quickness. He’ll be 28 in April, so he likely peaked athletically. Nevertheless, Noel is still a premier defender both in the paint and on the perimeter. He was the only player to average at least two blocks and one steal per game last season.

He also had issues catching the ball, which is a significant problem if he’s expected to be a consistent lob threat. With Kemba Walker running the point, the offense will need a center capable of catching passes from the veteran guard as he drives into the lane.

Noel certainly poses a threat, but there are needs to be filled and Robinson provides the skills to fulfill said needs. Even so, Robinson isn’t signed past this season. The big man could walk into unrestricted free agency unless the Knicks extend him, which could happen before the season if the price is right.

The Knicks should of course extend Robinson as his previous seasons within the organization prove significant value. In his first two seasons, Robinson played 1,360 and 1,412 minutes and garnered 6.1 and 6.8 win shares, respectively. Both times he led the team in the category.

Noel, however, tallied 5.2 last season, his highest ever and the second-most on the Knicks. While Noel will return and likely play well, his track record doesn’t give hope for much more growth. Robinson has the growth factor, and he tallied 3.4 win shares in about half as many minutes as Noel had this season. Robinson likely would’ve had at least six win shares again this season if he wasn’t hurt.

But without the certainty of a long-term deal, it’s possible Robinson’s name could be included in trade offers. If trade talks are happening, though, they need to stop. Robinson should not be dealt unless it is to acquire a star to vault the team into championship contention.

His value as a starting center is great, especially on a Knicks’ team which suits him perfectly. He doesn’t shoot anything outside of the paint nor will he dish a couple of assists per night, but he gels well on both ends of the floor with the rest of the team.

Julius Randle and RJ Barrett will enter season three alongside the center. Both drained 3-pointers last season at clips above 40 percent, so regression could occur. However, it wouldn’t dip so far to worry about floor spacing, especially since the other two starters have the ability to stretch the floor well.

It’s OK to limit Robinson’s scoring opportunities to the paint because spacing doesn’t become an issue with four outside threats around him. More importantly, however, his defense is what makes him so valuable. The little offensive output he provides is enough given how crucial he is to the Knicks’ defense.