In the middle of an 18-game losing streak, with the tank reaching levels deleterious to the mental health of players and viewers alike, there aren’t a whole lot of reasons to subject yourself to the Knicks. The only one I can offer you with a straight face is Mitchell Robinson, an ent with hops. Robinson can usually be found floating high enough over some poor sap’s layup to spike the top surface of the basketball, or to eat the moon. The rookie’s 14 points, 13 rebounds, two steals, four blocks, and general flurry of defensive limbs formed the only bright spot in New York’s 126-111 loss to the Sixers on Wednesday.
At best, this is an early look at a dominant big of the 2020s. And at worst, it is just an elaborate excuse to watch Joel Embiid get rocked, so, cool. The list of players in the league who can credibly defend Embiid isn’t long, and it’s a little startling to realize that the Knicks might have snagged one of them in the second round. Philly’s superstar went for a typical 26 points, but scored none of them on the 13 possessions where he was guarded primarily by Robinson. Instead he caught plenty of Robinson’s 7-foot-4 wingspan, propelled by some alarming bounce.
Here Embiid, an enormous man, creates a little bit of a space with a ball fake and a fadeaway, only to be met at the peak of his jump by a similarly enormous man with a looser relationship to gravity.
Jimmy Butler got a taste, too, when Robinson spiked his layup down in almost purely vertical direction.
“A couple times I thought I had a shot, and he just came up with his long-ass arms and blocked it,” Embiid said while offering the rookie some praise after the game. Those long-ass arms prove highly useful even when they’re not blocking shots. One of his most impressive defensive possessions was this moment late in the game, when Ben Simmons saw two Sixers further downcourt than any Knick and flung a long outlet pass. Robinson singlehandedly breaks up the play: He flies over the right block to poke away the outlet pass, lands, and springs to close out J.J. Redick on the left corner. That’s a lot of work for one dude, shutting down what would’ve been an easy Sixers bucket. Note where Mitch is when Redick catches the ball, and where his fingertips are when that ball’s taking flight. Robinson has not just the length to bother shooters but also—even at 7-foot-1—the speed to fling himself into their airspace.
On offense, Robinson, who’s shooting 70 percent from the floor, has mostly stayed within his immediate comfort zone, rim running and feasting on second chances, but even his finishes are getting a little more creative, as seen in the tricky finger roll he snuck by Embiid. Perhaps a jumper’s coming too; that would be all gravy. It’s a familiar comparison, but an even more salient one now that they’re teammates: Mitchell Robinson looks a whole lot like a young DeAndre Jordan, and hopefully he won’t spend much more time playing behind him, either.