Mitchell Robinson
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

Should New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson continue to prove his worth, he’ll be looking towards a big payday. The question is, how big will it be?

Geoffrey Campbell

Basketball is still a game of skill. Dribbling, passing and shooting still reign supreme when organizations are assigning a monetary value to players. However, the rise of analytics and specifically the process of quantifying how a player’s game translates to winning has changed the way that players get paid.

Enter Mitchell Robinson.

The New York Knicks are still pinching themselves after finding this diamond in the rough in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft. Picked 36th overall, Robinson quickly asserted himself as the Knicks’ most valuable asset. Robinson’s rim protection, ability to switch onto opposing guards and his rim running in the pick and roll have all proved to be invaluable skills.

The Brooklyn Nets’ Caris LeVert just received a three-year $52-million extension, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The deal was an example of fantastic business for the Nets, locking up one of their young players as part of a core that includes Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. LeVert, a player who has also dealt with injuries early in his career guaranteed himself $50 million instead of taking the gamble and testing free agency.

Robinson is entering his second year in the league and will not be eligible for an extension until he finishes his third season after the 2020-2021 campaign. And despite LeVert’s recent extension, a comparison with Robinson is not really appropriate due to differences in position. Additionally, Robinson, unlike LeVert, was drafted in very late in the second round.

ESPN and NBA Countdown personality Jalen Rose often makes a distinction between a “will” big and a “skill” big on his podcast Jalen & Jacoby. Players like Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Nikola Jokic fit within the “skill” big category. In addition to their impressive size, all of the aforementioned bigs can dribble, pass and shoot with the best of them.

The “will” bigs include players like Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, Andre Drummond, even Draymond Green and yes Robinson. All of these players change the game with their defense. Sure, there is skill in blocking shots, and positional awareness, but more often than not, these players use intangibles and rim protection to assume the primary role of the anchor of the defense.

Nylon Calculus’ player impact plus-minus scale created a large spreadsheet calculating a player’s offensive and defensive impact as well as their wins added and estimated annual salary based on their impact. To accurately estimate Robinson’s value, it helps to look at players like Capela, Gobert, Drummond, and Green. These are all players that might be limited offensively, yet their overall contributions to spacing and defense are paramount towards winning.

Not surprisingly, of all the players mentioned, Green and Gobert had the highest PIPM during the 2018-2019 season at +4.18 and +4.53 respectively. Both accounted for just over 12 wins added to their respective teams. Green recently inked a four-year $100 million extension with the Golden State Warriors. However, he had originally signed a five-year extension, back in 2015, for $82 million. Gobert, in 2016, signed a four-year $102 million extension making him the highest-paid player on the Utah Jazz, prior to Mike Conley.

Drummond recorded a +3.61 PIPM and Capela received a +1.85 PIPM. Drummond accounted for 10.64 wins added while Capela recorded 6.98 wins added. Drummond signed a monster five-year $127 million deal with the Detroit Pistons in 2016, and Capela signed a five-year $90 million extension last summer. Interestingly enough, of all the players within the top 45, Robinson is the youngest at 21 years old.

During the 2018-2019 season, Robinson posted a +2.35 PIPM and 4.18 wins added. Based on that production his estimated annual salary should’ve been $11,738,550. Currently, Robinson is in the second year of a three-year $4.7 million deal with a fourth-year team option. To say that the Knicks have him on the cheap is an understatement, but that won’t last for long. The Knicks don’t have any players signed to long-term, big-money deals, but Robinson may be the first to sign one under the Mills, Perry and Fizdale regime.

Based on my estimation, the NBA salary cap projects to be somewhere around $124 million prior to the beginning of the 2021-2022 season. Robinson will be eligible for an extension that includes an annual salary at least equal to 25 percent of the salary cap, which would be around $31 million. There’s also the possibility, although not likely, that Robinson could meet criteria for the designated rookie extension by winning defensive player of the year, which would make him eligible for an annual salary equal to 30 percent of the cap.

Last season, fellow ESNY colleague Danny Small wrote about the comparisons between Capela and Robinson. If we take it a step further, and use Capela’s extension as a template for Robinson, he’s looking at a five-year deal worth just north of $109 million, at $21 million per year. It sounds like a lot, but if Robinson continues to improve and stays healthy, this is the ball-park the Knicks will be looking at.

My personal feeling is that the Knicks will try to sign Robinson to an extension that mirrors one that Draymond Green signed back in 2015, five-years $82 million. It might even behoove them to back-log his contract to create more room during the early years of the extension to sign other players either currently on the roster, or through free agency.

But if you still feel that those numbers are crazy for a player who just barely averaged over seven points and six rebounds, consider a piece written by Michael Salfino of FiveThirtyEight. Salfino writes about the statistical anomaly of Robinson, and how depending on which metric you use, he can be regarded as an elite defensive player or just an average NBA center. Salfino explains,

“If BPM is accurately assessing Robinson, he’s on pace to become one of the better second-round draft picks of all-time — and certainly the best, value-wise, in recent Knicks history. Robinson is having the fourth-best rookie season ever by this metric,3 at 6.3 points over average on an average team. But the rookies ahead of him — 1984-85 Michael Jordan (8.2), 1975-76 Alvan Adams (6.7) and 1989-90 David Robinson (6.5) — were all Top 4 picks. Mitchell Robinson was picked 36th overall.

However, on the contrary, ESPN’s real plus-minus rated Robinson as just the 46th best center in the NBA last season. Salfino believes that this is due to the fact that, despite Robinson’s unique ability to block shots, it doesn’t stop the other teams from scoring points. Yet, to me, this is more of an indictment on the Knicks last season. Anyone who watched them saw a young team, abysmal on defense, but Robinson was one of the silver linings.

At the very least, Robinson promises to be one of the more exciting players to watch in the coming seasons. Health, more than anything will probably determine whether Robinson reaches his potential or not. With that said, his growth and development may be one of the first signs that the current front office is on the right path. Additionally, if Robinson does receive an extension, it may cement him as part of a core that Knicks fans have not seen since the 1990s.

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