Knicks’ Nerlens Noel raves about ‘close-knit team,’ but how does Mitchell Robinson change his role?

The New York Knicks rolled into the 2020-21 season with a Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson at center. However, Robinson suffered two fractures last season, including a hand and foot injury. Noel was forced into a far more significant role, averaging 24.2 minutes per game, playing in 64 contests, and starting in 41.

During his unexpectedly involved season, Noel averaged 5.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and posted a career-high 2.2 blocks per game. He was one of the leading patrons on defense, which led him to sign a fresh three-year, $27.7 million deal, including $18 million guaranteed. There is a kicker, though, as Noel doesn’t have any guaranteed money in the third season of the deal, so the Knicks can move on and save the salary space if need be.

Despite rumors that teams were intrigued by Noel and his skill set, his desire was always to stay in New York based on the performance of the squad last year.

“Everything we built last year,” he said on MSGPM with Kaz Famuyide and Monica McNutt. “It was a really close-knit team that I wanted to stay involved with. All the opportunities I got last year I tried to seize. Coming into this new year, I want to build on that. I want to help this team get to the next level of the playoffs.”

Bringing back Noel provides a big shot-blocker in the paint, but he lacks the offensive efficiency somewhere hoping to find in free agency. The Knicks will be gaining back Mitchell Robinson, who has been working hard this off-season to rehabilitate his foot.

Robinson has one year remaining on his contract at $1.8 million. The front office must make a decision this upcoming season regarding his future with a team. Given how affordable he currently is, the Knicks felt good retaining Noel on a slightly above-market contract for his qualities.

The expectation is that Robinson will be the starting center to open the 2021-22 season. Over 31 games, Robinson averaged 27.5 minutes, posting 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per contest. With a career-high of 2.4 blocks during his rookie season, Robinson has the potential to be one of the best shot blockers in the NBA.

The team wants him to be their long-term solution paired with Noel to mitigate fatigue over a full 82 game schedule, but he hasn’t played over 61 games in two years. By all standards, Robinson played below his potential last season in several categories, recording a below-average (in relation to his first two years in the NBA) defensive rebounding percentage at 12.2% and free throw rate. He did enjoy a 1.8 steal percentage, and a 12% blocked percentage — both career highs.

Nonetheless, Thibodeau loves his defensive-minded players, and having two traditional big men in the paint should open up the floor for the Knicks’ shooters, including Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Immanuel Quickley, and a bevy of quality point guards.

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