When Tom Thibodeau became the New York Knicks head coach, one of the first things he did was send his assistants Mike Woodson and Kenny Payne down to New Orleans to work out Mitchell Robinson.
Woodson didn’t like what he saw.
“He wasn’t in shape, and I just didn’t know how much he would allow you to push him,” Woodson said in an SNY interview last May.
It was the first wrinkle on the Robinson-Thibodeau relationship. Robinson, who was 22 at that time, followed that up with an abrupt exit from the Knicks’ pre-training camp bubble for personal reasons.
That prompted Thibodeau to say at the start of the training camp last year that Robinson has a long way to go and has a lot of room for growth in terms of professionalism and impacting winning.
“I think [Robinson] has had some really good moments, but I think he’s got a long way to go,” Thibodeau said last year. “The work part, the professionalism to continue to grow to impact winning, there’s a lot of room for growth. I don’t know where he’ll end up. There are things he can do that are very unique. I think we’re very fortunate to have Nerlens Noel. In some ways, he’s very similar when you look at rim protection. We’re excited about both guys.”
But over time, those wrinkles were ironed out. Before the season started, Robinson won the starting job and showed some growth until two major injuries limited him to only 31 games.
This summer, the Knicks sent some of their personnel in New Orleans to ensure that he was on the right track to full recovery.
Six months since his foot surgery, Robinson has yet to participate in contact drills. The Knicks are taking a cautious approach.
At the start of his second training camp under Thibodeau, Robinson was a limited participant. The plan is to bring him along slowly. But unlike last year, there were no asterisks in Thibodeau’s remarks about the Knicks’ young center, who is entering a contract year.
“It’s encouraging because each day, he’s doing more and more. He feels really good, which is important,” Thibodeau said Tuesday at the start of the NBA Training Camp.
Robinson bulked up and became more serious about his craft. The Louisiana native, who never had a coaching structure as solid as he has now under Thibodeau, became a student of the game.
“He’s put a lot of time into film study. He’s done things where he’s sitting in a chair, handling the ball, shooting out of the chair, stationary shooting, form shooting, cardio on the pool, cardio on the bike. You guys can see the physical difference. He’s done a lot of strength training. He’s handled it well as you can handle it.”
Thibodeau’s culture of accountability has allowed Robinson to grow not only physically but internally. The Knicks’ former second-round pick has never been this driven. He speaks about going after the Defensive Player of the Year award. And he’s backing that up with a work ethic that wasn’t there in his early years in the league after flip-flopping his way into the NBA, shunning the college route.
While the injuries cut short his promising third season and first under Thibodeau, the initial setback has set him up for a big bounce back.
“I think sometimes when you have some time off like that, you can take a step back and get a broader view of everything,” Thibodeau said. “I think he has a good understanding of how important practice, preparation is just by observing the playoffs last [season]. When you go back to the last season, he’s had a number of big games against quality teams for us. What he brings to our team is unique, and his contributions to the team are important,” Thibodeau said.
In a marquee matchup against Rudy Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, back in January at home, Robinson battled him toe-to-toe with a complete line — nine points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and three blocks against only two fouls in a 112-100 Knicks victory. Gobert finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks.
In a 130-110 rout of the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks early in the season, Robinson helped limit Brook Lopez to just six points on 2-of-7 shooting and two rebounds.
He had back-to-back double-double games against Charlotte (12 points, 11 rebounds, two steals, two blocks) and Brooklyn (10 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks) in February. More than a week later, he started a five-game West Coast trip with an 18-point, 8-rebound, 2-block performance against Golden State.
Robinson collected five double-doubles, 10 games with double-digit rebounds, and 15 games with at least two shot blocks in the 31 games he played. The Knicks went 15-16 with him in the lineup.
While those were not enough for the Knicks to give Robinson an extension this offseason, the time he spent away from the court had made him hungrier.
Thibodeau is watching Robinson grow right before his eyes. The injuries are turning out to be a blessing in disguise.
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