Mitchell Robinson
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

At the All-Star break of his second season, Mitchell Robinson is still trying to solve the one problem that holds him back from stardom.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—The New York Knicks are in that familiar place they find themselves year after year. The All-Star break hits and it’s time to decide whether to play the veterans who give the team a better chance of winning or prioritize the development of the youth.

For players like Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, and Dennis Smith Jr., major minutes are no guarantee from the coaching staff. Interim head coach Mike Miller has given little indication that he’ll up the workload for this young group following the break.

Mitchell Robinson, on the other hand, is going to have no problem garnering playing time. Well, that’s if he can manage to stay out of foul trouble. Wednesday night was a microcosm for the 7-footer’s career thus far.

He was absolutely dominant when he was on the floor against the Washington Wizards, tallying 11 points with five offensive rebounds and eight boards in total. This came a few days after the neophyte dropped 15 points, hauled in 11 rebounds, and blocked three shots in an overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Although the numbers from each game aren’t far apart, Robinson’s impact on the Washington game was hampered by foul trouble: a common issue for the 21-year-old.

“It’s like a rollercoaster. I had some good games and I had some terrible games,” Robinson responded when asked about the first half of the season. “I’ve got to find a way to stay consistent through the whole thing.”

Although his fouls per game from his rookie to sophomore season are stagnant at 3.3 per contest, Robinson is fouling out of games at a slightly higher rate. He’s fouled out seven times in 51 games this season after doing so just eight times in 66 games last year. For this reason alone, Robinson is still coming off the bench while veteran Taj Gibson mans the starting lineup.

Ironically enough, Robinson’s role as the sixth man is motivated by an effort to play him more. Keeping him out of the starting group is a way to ensure that he avoids early foul trouble and can be a factor in the fourth quarter of close games.

Opting to start Gibson over Robinson is a tactical decision, but it’s not something that is sustainable in the long-term. At some point, Robinson will have to start games to reach his full potential and when he does, stardom will soon follow.

Despite his ever-present foul woes, the young center is among the NBA’s best in a handful of categories. Robinson is currently fifth in the league in total blocks despite playing far fewer minutes than anyone else on the list.

He also leads the NBA in shooting (73%) while cracking the top 10 in a handful of important categories—blocks per game, block percentage, total offensive rebounds, offensive rebounding percentage, win shares per 48, and defensive box plus/minus.

Robinson has talked a big game since coming into the league. He’s mentioned Defensive Player of the Year as an eventual goal, which isn’t farfetched considering his ridiculous end-to-end impact when he’s on the court.

But at the de facto midpoint of his second season, he’s still held back by that one Achilles heel. If and when he finally finds the balance that allows him to stay aggressive without fouling, DPOY honors are a very realistic goal. But until then, Robinson will have to continue to ride the rollercoaster.

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