With three weeks left before the new NBA season begins, New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson has yet to progress to contact drills. His availability on the opening night remains a big question mark.
“There’s really no timetable,” Tom Thibodeau said after Thursday’s practice. “When he’s ready, he’s ready. We talk to the medical people every day. We talk to Mitch to see how he’s doing. I think it’s important for us to have the big picture in mind with him.”
In such a critical season where his future with the team and his next contract are at stake, this is not the ideal situation. But Robinson has grown so much, and he’s smart enough to know that one wrong decision could cost him not just a million. But a truckload.
Robinson, who grew to 280 pounds, can’t wait to flex the muscles he developed in the offseason. But when asked if he’s ready to play on the opening night, Robinson was non-committal.
“As a player, I think so. But I still need to listen to those guys (medical staff). They’ve been through this stuff. So I’m putting all my trust in them. So even if I know I want to go out there and play, I’ll be smart and let them handle it. I’ll just do what they ask,” said the 23-year old center.
The Knicks are eager to see him back on the court to assess how much he’s really worth. But they are also smart enough to know that rushing him to return could help them in the immediate future but could also hurt them in the end. Under Leon Rose’s regime, where patience and prudence reign, the Knicks are content to see Robinson take baby steps than gamble on giant strides.
“Each day, he’s doing a little bit more. He’s still working on his conditioning, doing a little more basketball, doing small parts of practice. There’s a progression to what he’s doing,” Thibodeau said.
“Eventually, he’ll be cleared to do all the non-contact [drills], and we’ll start with one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three to the point where he can take contact. To go from zero to a hundred doesn’t make any sense. So each step, once he clears, he goes to the next one. He’s making really good progress.”
Robinson has been doing a lot of individual drills — light jogging, handling the ball while sitting on a chair, shooting out of the chair, stationary shooting, form shooting, cardio exercises in the pool and on the bike. Thibodeau also revealed that Robinson has been doing a lot of extra work on the sidelines with Aaron Brooks, the Knicks’ two-way liaison.
“He’s doing a great job in practice with the things he can do. We just want to make sure he’s completely healed. When you’ve been out with that amount of time, he’s got to get his conditioning up to speed. So that’s really the first step. Then once that happens, he’ll be cleared to do more and more in practice,” Thibodeau said.
It has been six months since Robinson underwent surgery to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot. Under normal circumstances, it should have been healed by now. But Jeff Stotts, a certified athletic trainer who runs the in street clothes website, which analyzes sports injuries, believes the Knicks are taking the right approach.
According to Stotts’ database, the average time lost for in-season fifth metatarsal fractures has been 42 games (roughly 10 to 11 weeks). It’s shorter (about 15 games) when the injury occurs during the offseason, which is why Zion Williamson, who suffered the same injury recently, is optimistic he could be ready by the opening night. But the timeline is harder to gauge in Robinson’s case since he sustained the injury in-game late in the season.
“The variability of a metatarsal injury can be pretty high because with these types of injuries, they depend on how the injury occurred and when did the injury occur,” Stotts told Empire Sports Media.
“The problem is if it’s located near the base of the foot in that fifth metatarsal — where the fifth metatarsal bridges the bones of the midfoot to the bones of the pinky toe. If it occurs closer to the midfoot, the blood supply in that area is very low, which is why surgeries are often required. Even if surgeries have been carried out, there’s no guarantee that the bone will heal quickly. It can take some time,” Stotts explained.
Ben Simmons missed his entire rookie season because of the same injury. Brook Lopez sat out 100 games when he was still with the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant only played in 27 games during the 2014-15 season.
“Kevin [Durant] had some complications with his fifth metatarsal when he had this. So you have to take your time to recover. Because if you don’t, the re-injury incident is pretty high. There’s also the potential for complications with the surgical hardware,” Stotts said.
In Robinson’s case, given the available information, Stotts believes the Knicks’ big man is on track to full recovery, but he is not quite there yet. The bone tissue, according to Stotts, heals nicely if it’s given an appropriate amount of time which is the frustrating part of these types of injuries.
“It’s likely the Knicks understand these things and what they’re doing is slow playing his recovery to ensure that [Robinson] doesn’t suffer some setback that’s going to ultimately push back his timeline again,” Stotts said.
If there’s anything good that has come out of this ordeal is that Robinson fell in love with the process of taking care of his body and working out. He said he worked closely with the Knicks conditioning coaches, and his trainer Marcell Scott was always on his ears back home in New Orleans to stay on the right track.
“I just fell in love, and now I can’t stay out of the weight room,” Robinson said. “It’s crazy!”
But being in great shape is not the same as being in game shape, according to Stotts.
When asked if Robinson could be ready by the first or second month of the season, Stotts said that’s a fairly reasonable estimation given what we know about his recovery progress.
While Robinson is out, the Knicks will rely on Nerlens Noel and the 36-year old grizzled veteran Taj Gibson to anchor their defense which finished in the top five last season.
“That’s the great value of having a guy like Taj,” Thibodeau said. “[Taj] has been an elite defender throughout his career, so even though he’s a little older now but he stays ready, he stays in great shape.”
“He’s locked into everything that we’re doing. Whether he’s not in the rotation, he’s just practicing hard with his teammates to help the team in any way he can, and then when you have to plug him in off the bench, he can handle that. If we have to plug him in as a starter, he can handle that. He’s played two positions his entire career. He’s started, he’s come off the bench, he’s finished a lot of games, and so he’s invaluable to us.”
Robinson is eligible to sign a $53 million, four-year extension until the end of the season. But the Knicks are still reluctant to discuss extension until they see how he looks on the court after the injury.
The good news is that a 2016 study revealed that NBA players who suffered the Jones fracture did not display a decrease in performance when they returned.
Lopez, Durant, and Simmons all survived and thrived after the injury. Only Rasheed Wallace — who was 38 and at the tail end of his career in 2013 with the Knicks — was forced to retire because of the same type of injury.
But despite the rosy picture, there’s a variable that might untrack Robinson. Whether he admits it or not, there is the pressure to deliver big on a contract year.
“I’ve been focused on getting back. I don’t worry about the contract and stuff like that. I just want to hoop,” Robinson said. “Whenever [my agent] tells me that this is what [Knicks] are gonna do, then we’ll just talk about it at that time. But as far as right now, I’m just trying to get back to playing.”
The most frustrating part of the timing of the injury is that Robinson had started to get comfortable under Thibodeau’s system.
While their relationship started on the wrong foot, Thibodeau eventually became a fan of Robinson. On Thursday, Thibodeau defended why Robinson’s blocks went down from 2.4 and 2.0 per game in his first two seasons to just 1.5 last season despite playing career-best 27.5 minutes.
“Oftentimes, when we talk about defensive ratings and different measurements, sometimes you may see a guy who’s high in steals, and he gets rated highly because of that, and oftentimes he’s the guy that breaks you down. And the same thing if you just go after blocks all the time and you’re not fulfilling your team responsibilities. Again, your blocks may be high, but you may not be effective in terms of your team defense, pick and roll defense, or whatever it might be,” Thibodeau explained.
“The big thing for us is getting his fouls down, and I think he’s done a great job with that. And there’s still the rim intimidation. Guys are looking to see where he is. So I think his discipline has improved greatly. He’s not recklessly, just flying all over the place. He’s got more discipline to his game, and he’s impacting shots in the paint and the restricted (area) in a very efficient way.”
Robinson cut his fouls down to just 2.8 per game, the lowest in his first three years in the league.
Thibodeau was effusive in his praise, unlike last year’s training camp when he remarked that the big man had a lot of room for improvement regarding professionalism and impacting winning.
This offseason, Robinson did a 360-degree turn — growing physically, emotionally, and mentally.
“The thing I liked about what he did is he maximized the time. In terms of strength and conditioning, whatever it might have been, whether it’s the pool or the bike, but physically he’s matured. So he’s not a young kid anymore. He looks great,” Thibodeau said.
“He’s definitely a lot stronger than he was. He’s put a lot of work in, in terms of watching film and he’s doing all the things that he can do. I think he’s very engaged with his teammates. When he’s on the sidelines, he’s into what’s going on and gets there early with the early group and stays late. He’ll come in at night. So he’s in the building all the time. That’s a big plus.”
With all the pent-up emotions, Robinson’s first game back, though it could come with a minutes restriction, should be a cracker.
“I feel a whole lot stronger. My body feels better,” Robinson said. “I’m just going to see how it goes. I want somebody to hit me in the chest. I want to see how it feels.”
Robinson said he misses the action so much, especially during the playoffs when the Knicks lost to Atlanta Hawks, 4-1, as Clint Capela bullied Noel in the paint.
“I missed it! It’s better to be playing than sitting on the sidelines, obviously,” Robinson said. “Of course, you’re learning a little bit more, but I want to be in the fight, man!”
With so much hype about his growth and his great physique, his return to the court just couldn’t come soon enough.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo