Mitchell Robinson: New York's Defensive Monster

Mitchell Robinson is a walking nightmare that offenses dread. How does a rookie have this much of a defensive impact?

Heavy lies the crown.

Yes, the burden must be heavy for Knicks fans. Madison Square Garden, The Mecca of basketball, routinely hosts the worst team in basketball, and has for years. 

But wait. A light approaches on the horizon. 

Like Gandalf at Helm's Deep, a savior has surprised even the most prepared Knicks fans. It is not the chance at Zion Williamson, it is not the rumors of free agents, it is in the here and now. It is Mitchell Robinson. 

"Surprise" doesn't seem to cover Robinson. He was a second-round draft pick (36th overall) who didn't play college basketball. Perhaps this last tidbit shakes the dust off the annals deep within your basketball mind. Robinson made waves by becoming the first major player (McDonalds's All-American) to forgo college so that he could develop independently (as in not play overseas) to prepare for the draft. When the time came for Robinson to participate in the NBA Draft Combine, he did not attend. 

What's a team supposed to do? Robinson was a highly decorated high school player but was radio silent for the proceeding year. No G League, no college ball, no combine. 

So, yeah, Mitchell Robinson averaging 2.3 bpg in 18 minutes, 4.7 blocks per 36, and then having 9 blocks in a single game is certainly surprising, 

Robinson was identified early on as a potential game changer as a shot blocker.  It's easy to see why. He's got a 7'4 wingspan and a 9'3 standing reach. A 9'3 standing reach. He has to jump 9 inches to touch the rim. Don't let that number slip by you. This means that were he to stick his arms straight up, he could touch the rim on his tip-toes. With his jumping ability, we're talking about a guy who can effectively put a 1-2 foot barrier around the rim.

There are children all across America jumping in excess of 9 inches to retrieve dangling toys from the grips of their tortuous older siblings every day and they think nothing of it. Blocking shots is easy for Mitchell Robinson. I'm sure he thinks nothing of it. 

His block rate sits at 10.5%, which would be the highest for a single season by any player in NBA history who is not named Manute Bol. And even Bol is only fractionally ahead - he had three seasons between 10.6% and 10.8%. 

Every draft profile about Robinson mentioned this ability. We didn't have much to work with the year Robinson took to develop independently, but we should have seen something like this coming. 

Robinson's per 36 numbers are staggering. 12.9 points, 4.7 blocks, 10 rebounds, on +70% shooting. Over the length of a season, this stat line has never happened. 

Almost no player in NBA history has blocked shots at the rate and frequency of Robinson. How does he do it? 

Positioning

This video is telling. When DeAndre Ayton gets the ball, he's not in a good position to spin baseline. Typically, it makes sense to do that with your back to the basket, with your back to the baseline. To do so would require a large movement, a spin, a very large drop step, and changing your dribble hand. It's possible, but not probable.

Robinson has this in mind, so he cheats and plays further to his left. It's a gamble, but not a large one. It pays off. Robinson isn't pushed around easily, and Ayton struggles to get to his spot. Once he's there, Robinson's freak athleticism, reach, and jumping ability allow him to get a hand on the ball.

This is astonishing. Really.

Check out where Robinson starts on this play. He's about 4 feet from the logo. He runs down and covers his man, Ayton, while keeping his eyes on the ball. What he does after is smart. Once he notices the drive, he gets in a position that cuts off a dump off to Ayton, and also forces the ball handler to stay baseline, effectively using that as an extra defender. He does that, and then knowing where the ball will be is easy.

Timing

This video is sort of similar to eating a warm donut: it’s perfect.

A big mistake amateur, college, and some pro players make is anticipating the jump before the offensive player’s shot, and anticipating it so much that they either A) bite on pump fakes or B) jump immediately after.

It takes discipline, but textbook shot blocking reacts naturally to the opponent's jump, and goes for the block a few moments later. I've watched this video so many times. I think it's beautiful. He's in transition, and he retains his thoughtfulness; enough to make the perfect play.

Coaches, show this to your bigs.

Again, this is instinct and years of training oneself to not react instantly, but react just after instantly. By timing his ascent to perfection, he meets the ball in the air and smothers it.

I have seen the face of eternal defensive wholeness, and its name is Mitchell Robinson. He's a rookie. What more can he do with even more years under his belt?

Athleticism

Not all shot blocking is finesse. Some of it is aided by the circumstances of your birth: your athletic ability and size. Some players are aided by only finesse or only athleticism.

Here, Robinson just has a big jump and long arms. Sometimes that's all it takes.

Do you see what I mean?

Conclusion

Mitchell Robinson has both finesse and athleticism, and its combination is frightening. It's reminiscent of great shot blockers like Rudy Gobert and Hakeem Olajuwon.

For Knicks fans who are burdened by the hamster wheel of ineptitude, there is Mitchell Robinson, who ought not be taken lightly. He is not a fluke. He is talented, and those who don't know him surely will soon.

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