New York Knicks Mitchell Robinson
(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The New York Knicks need their rookie big man, Mitchell Robinson to step up as Kristaps Porzingis recovers.

For someone with such a high ceiling, New York Knicks rookie center Mitchell Robinson hasn’t done much in his young career.

OK, that’s an unfair statement. The season is less than a month old, and Robinson has been rehabbing a sprained ankle suffered in the preseason. Given the 20-year-old’s talent and ceiling, limiting his minutes until he’s fully healthy is a smart idea. He also made his first career start Friday against the Golden State Warriors.

The problem is the Knicks are already playing under less than ideal circumstances. Star power forward Kristaps Porzingis is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season and has no timetable for a return. He’s practicing, yes, but his sitting out the year could indeed become a reality. New York isn’t expecting to contend in 2018-19, so why risk him getting re-injured?

Moreover, first-round pick Kevin Knox was lost to a sprained ankle on Oct. 20. The team is expected to be without him at least another week, leaving a player who can attack at both ends on the shelf.

This puts Robinson in a position for a tremendous opportunity. If he can step up and alleviate the team’s rebounding problems while other key players are injured, he could set himself up to have a bigger role even after their return.

Rookie excitement

Mitchell Robinson’s path to the NBA has been, in a word, unconventional. He was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American out of the New Orleans area. He first committed to Texas A&M, but then de-committed before signing a letter of intent to play at Western Kentucky.

Robinson’s time with the Hilltoppers was short, to say the least. He left school after two weeks with the team in July 2017, and it was later reported he would seek a transfer. Shortly after this decision went public, Robinson announced he would focus on preparing for the 2018 NBA Draft.

New York selected Robinson in the second round back in June, with the 36th overall pick. He then went to the NBA Summer League, and fans got a taste of the enigmatic rookie.

Robinson was, in a word, incredible. He averaged 24.8 minutes, 13 points, and 10.2 rebounds per game over five games. He shot 67 percent from the field and also posted an eye-popping four blocks per contest.

Granted, the Summer League isn’t exactly a hotbed of competition. Great as Robinson looked, he wasn’t exactly going up against big men like Andre Drummond or Rudy Gobert. Still, it provides a prime example of what any given prospect can do on the professional level. Robinson is still only 20 and a raw talent, plus he’s recovering from an injury, but the tape doesn’t lie. He can be a tough and dominant big man if given the opportunity.

The time for that opportunity is now.

Trouble in the paint

For a 1-5 team, the Knicks have actually looked pretty competitive early on in the season. Their average margin of defeat in those four losses is 9.5 points, but that number is arguably inflated. New York lost its first two games by just two points each, so losing by double digits in their last three contests bumped up that number. The point is that despite their record, the Knicks have actually looked like a strong team early on.

And the team would look even stronger were it not for trouble in the rebounding game. The Knicks ranked 24th in the NBA in rebounds per game entering Friday and have gotten completely outclassed on the boards. They were out-rebounded by an average of 9.5 boards per contest in four of their last five losses, and badly in some games.

The Brooklyn Nets had 55 rebounds to the Knicks’ 36 last week and still needed a last-second layup from Caris LeVert to win. The Bucks had 55 boards to New York’s 43 on Monday. Sure, Enes Kanter and Noah Vonleh are providing help in the paint with respective averages of 10.8 and 8.6 rebounds, but they can only do so much.

New York could use some more size, and Mitchell Robinson can provide exactly that.

A prime opportunity

Look at it this way. The Knicks have used the same starting lineup in all but one of their games this year: Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Lance Thomas, and Kanter. Given coach David Fizdale’s defense-first philosophy, that’s a solid group. Hardaway is the go-to scorer and alpha dog of the quintet. Ntilikina and Thomas are both strong on-ball defenders with a knack for hitting key three-pointers. Burke, though far from perfect, holds his own as a facilitator and Kanter provides help in the paint on both ends of the court.

There’s just one problem. That particular lineup lacks some serious size. Kanter is the tallest at 6-foot-11, followed by Thomas at 6-foot-8. Vonleh is 6-foot-9 and averaging a whopping 18.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, but he has already established himself as a spark off the bench. He may be best served as a second unit big man to bring some energy.

That leaves Mitchell Robinson, who played 22 total minutes in five games entering Friday. New York drafted him because his 7-foot-1, 240-pound frame can provide dominance on the glass. Ankle injury aside, how can the Knicks expect to hold their own under the basket if Robinson isn’t getting minutes?

Final thoughts

All in all, the Knicks’ reasons for not giving Mitchell Robinson significant minutes early on probably have the best of intentions behind them. This is very much a rebuilding season, so risking injury to a top prospect isn’t worth it. Knox’s sprained ankle already has the Knicks playing without a dynamic rookie, and losing Robinson for an extended period of time could also hurt.

Except, the Knicks clearly haven’t received the memo about 2018-19 being such a year. The way they’ve been playing shows it. Save for the loss to Miami and in the fourth quarter against the Warriors, New York has shown incredible fight and communication in every game so far. Who’s to say they wouldn’t have won at least two of these last four games had Robinson been on the court to provide strong interior defense?

The team isn’t quite at Defcon Level 5 just yet, but the last few losses have been disheartening. Mitchell Robinson needs to become a regular presence in the lineup. Otherwise, why even keep him on the main roster?

Well, considering he managed seven points with six rebounds in 28 minutes in his first career start, he’s earned at least another one.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.