Knicks' Mitchell Robinson's early Defensive Player of the Year campaign

If one had to single out a “Most Valuable Knick” to honor as the biggest factor in vaulting the Knicks from mediocrity to legitimacy, who would be the best pick? Jalen Brunson is arguably their best player and the man who took their on-paper talent to a new level, and none of this would be possible without Julius Randle’s versatility and All-NBA production.

But how about the longest-tenured Knick on the roster, the foul-heavy second-round pick turned elite defensive big? Mitchell Robinson may not grab headlines like he does boards, and only has one 20-point game in four seasons, but he’s been successfully anchoring this Tom Thibodeau defense for years and just took his game to the next level.

Early into the 2023-24 season, Robinson is putting up record-breaking offensive rebound numbers. He’s nabbing 5.6 offensive rebounds a night, or 9.5 per 100 possessions, which would beat out five entire teams this season.

His current offensive rebounding rate would give him the third-best mark since 1973-74 behind Dennis Rodman in 1995 and Jayson Williams in 1998. In their first 12 games, Robinson collected 67 second chances to Rodman’s 44.

These opportunities rescued a Knicks offense that stumbled out of the gates, but is now 11th in the league, and first in offensive rebound rate. His career year extends far beyond the offensive glass though.

Robinson is also putting up career numbers on the defensive boards, securing 5.8 a game or a 22.9 percent rate, altogether collecting 11.4 rebounds a night, good for sixth in the league. He’s seemingly fully bought into his role, executing it at a level not seen before, and it’s paying dividends.

It also comes at somewhat of a sacrifice, as Robinsons’s scoring has fallen to a career-low 6.5 points a night. These opportunities usually come from lobs, dunker spot finishes and putbacks, but Robinson is trading some of his own looks off the glass to find better options in the offense.

It doesn’t help that Robinson is shooting a new career-low from the free-throw line at 38.5 percent. He also looks to tip the ball way more often, either to score or keep the rebounding scrambles alive, resulting in some missed field goals.

The Knicks are also trying to reward Robinson with the occasional one-on-one scoring opportunity, some compensation for doing the team’s dirty work every night. Given the infrequency, they should keep this up as a regular exercise if it means Robinson continues diligently patrolling the rim.

Not only is Robinson the primary clean-up option, but he’s often the guy getting the stop in the first place. Some may look at his career-low blocks numbers as evidence against his defensive impact, but it’s actually the opposite.

Boston Celtics guard Jrue Holiday (4) looks to drive past New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) in the second quarter at Madison Square Garden.

Robinson’s biggest barrier to becoming an All-NBA defender was his IQ, constantly jumping way out of position to chase blocks, getting into foul trouble or just generally lacking awareness. He always had the tools at 7’1” with a 7’4” wingspan, serious bunnies, and after two NBA seasons, some meat on his bones.

Now, he’s fully digested the ins and outs of NBA defense and Thibodeau’s system, and that work is paying off in front of our eyes. The Knicks are fifth in the league defensively, allowing 108 points per 100 possessions, a number that drops to 106.9 with Robinson on the floor.

How is he making an outsized impact without sending shots into the fifth row? By not allowing them to be attempted in the first place.

Teams are shooting the fewest field goals per game within six feet against the Knicks, in no small part due to Robinson’s positioning and threatening verticality. He’s consistently floating between two defenders on pick-and-rolls, covering up lanes only to recover for the weak side pass, and generally mucking things up.

A telling number would be his fouls per 100 possessions dropping to a career-low 3.3 after hovering around five over his last few campaigns. He’s had one bad foul game this season, allowing him to play a career-high 29.5 minutes a night.

Another way he’s evolved is by finally utilizing his length in passing lanes. Robinson’s arms can touch the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower at the same time, now he’s finally keeping them active, and it’s causing mayhem.

Robinson is tenth among centers in deflections per game, putting up a career-high steal rate of nearly two per 36 minutes. This has helped a Knicks team notorious for not forcing turnovers to stand 10th in the league in opponent turnovers per 100 possessions.

The full picture suggests Robinson may be on his way to an All-NBA Defensive Team, and maybe more, if he keeps this up. So while his scoring isn’t making noise and other Knicks may garner most of the credit, he’s arguably been the team’s most valuable player this season.