NEW YORK — Orlando Magic guard Terrence Ross thought he had a clean look. He curled off of a screen at the foul line, caught a pass and rose up for a mid-range jump shot like he’s done time and time again in his career.
But you can’t practice for Mitchell Robinson. His shot never touched the rim.
“He made it a little harder for me to get a clean look at the basket,” Ross conceded. “I didn’t expect him to block my shot the way he did. That threw me for a little curve.”
That issue hasn’t come for just Ross. It’s been the case for everyone Robinson has stepped on the floor against this season.
The rookie Knicks second-round pick, drafted out of high school after abruptly withdrawing from Western Kentucky, had his breakout game Tuesday, notching 17 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks, and four steals against a Magic team fighting for the playoffs. It was his second consecutive double-double with five blocks, after putting on an impressive performance in a shock win over San Antonio on Sunday.
Robinson is averaging 2.3 blocks in just 18.4 minutes per game this season, a mark that earned him the nickname “Blockness Monster” from SB Nation’s Knicks blog Posting and Toasting. That averages out to six blocks per 48 minutes, a rate that only 11 players in NBA history have matched since the league began recording blocks in 1973.
The Knicks have had a terrible year. New York has the one of the three worst records in the NBA, and they traded Kristaps Porzingis, their beacon of hope, for a shot at two max free agents. This has not been a team that gives Knicks fans much to cheer about.
But Robinson has been a bright spot in an otherwise dark New York season. He’s 7’1 with a 7’4 wingspan and a freakish 9’3 standing reach. He blocks shot attempts both at the rim and at the three-point line. He grabs every rebound in sight and dunks everything near the rim.
The scariest part? He’s only scratching the surface of what he can eventually become.
“I want to get more blocked shots and one day be Defensive Player of the Year,” he said. “That’s one of my dreams.”
Weeks ago, that would have seemed absurd. But now, maybe it’s not
Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier won’t say Robinson took over the game. That would imply a dominance rarely seen from young centers.
But Fournier will concede Robinson had a huge impact on New York’s comeback victory, one that could prove devastating to Orlando’s postseason dreams.
“He’s one of these guys. I’m thinking about Hassan Whiteside and blocked shots,” Fournier said. “He has a long way as a defender to get like Rudy Gobert, but for a rookie he does a lot of good things and he has a very high ceiling.”
Knicks coach David Fizdale worked with Al Horford his rookie season in Atlanta, trained up Chris Bosh and Whiteside in Miami, and spent a rocky season and a half with Marc Gasol in Memphis. Asked if Robinson reminds him of any big man he’s ever worked with, Fizdale pauses:
“I don’t know man because he — no.
“He’s different. He’s fast, he’s agile,” the Knicks’ coach continues. “No, man. He’s different. He’s a different guy, and he’s got so much room to grow and I’m gonna keep my foot way up his butt to make sure he does.”
The Knicks project to have enough cap space to sign two max free agents this summer. They also project to be tied with two other teams for the highest odds at winning the Zion Williamson sweepstakes in the draft lottery. Fans can dream about the real possibility of Williamson, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Kevin Knox sharing the floor together.
But New York also has Robinson, a player whose recent emergence has been a light in a dark season. If Fizdale is right, you’ll be hearing a lot more of Robinson’s name in the future.