New York Knicks: Thibodeau hopes to cure Robinson’s foul woes

New York Knicks, Mitchell Robinson
Mar 22, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (26) and Denver Nuggets power forward Mason Plumlee (24) fight for a rebound during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

New York Knicks‘ third-year center Mitchell Robinson is at a crossroads of his young career.

The 22-year old Robinson, a second-round steal in the 2018 NBA Draft, is now eligible for a contract extension. This year, he’s scheduled to make only $1.6 million. His performance this season would dictate how lucrative his next contract can be.

Robinson is looking forward to a big year after spending much of his first two seasons constantly battling foul troubles on the court and instability in both the organization and his career management.

His propensity for committing ticky-tacky fouls that saw him averaged 3.3 and 3.2 fouls per game in each of his first two seasons while playing under two coaches — David Fizdale and Mike Miller — kept him from getting more than 22 minutes a night. Also, in that span, he’s switched agents five times.

Looking for stability

Now on his third coach in Tom Thibodeau and sixth agency in the Wasserman Group, Robinson hopes he finally found the perfect pair that will stabilize his promising career.

Robinson dodged questions about his latest agent switch, but he admitted it was a learning process to find the right one.

“It was just like personal stuff,” Robinson said on his zoom call with reporters Monday. “I don’t really want to get into that. But it was just personal. I just felt like I needed something different.”

He insisted he’s not thinking about his next contract, and his singular focus is to earn a role in the team and play the game that he loves.

“Not really, I’m just going to play,” Robinson said. “All this quarantine stuff, it’s aggravating. I just want to get out and play. I really haven’t thought about the contract stuff. When the time comes, it comes.”

But earning a significant time to play and perhaps a big payday will hinge on his commitment to stay disciplined.

The Knicks were 8-17 when Robinson had committed at least four fouls last season. In 66 games, he’s breached the 30-minute barrier only six times.

Thibodeau hopes he has the cure for Robinson’s foul woes.

“I think that’s been the emphasis in the training camp obviously for the first couple of days. We start with the fundamentals and build up to the team schemes, but there’s a lot of great instincts that he [Robinson] has. His ability to protect the rim is elite. So obviously, keeping him on the floor, getting him to play with a little more technique, I think he can be more disruptive. But he has a very big upside defensively,” Thibodeau said on a separate zoom call.

Back to the future

A glimpse of that big upside was very evident when the Knicks won four of their last six games, including a two-point victory over playoff-bound Houston Rockets before the global pandemic shut the league down.

Robinson started that stretch with his season-high 23-point double-double performance in a home win against the Chicago Bulls on February 29 and bookended it with a 16-point game on a perfect 7-7 shooting from the field in their March 11 win against the Atlanta Hawks.

During that six-game span, Robinson averaged 14.3 points on an insane 78.7 percent shooting from the field, 7.8 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, and only turned the ball over just once.

What made him so effective in that stretch was that he never reached the fourth foul in all those games.

If Robinson is at his best, the Knicks can compete with the elite.

Weighty matter

During the long break, Robison said he’s put on additional weight as he reported to the training camp with a beefy 250-lb frame, 10 lbs. more than last season.

“I think it will help me a lot. For me, adding a little weight will definitely help me out stay on the floor a little more than normal. Now I can kind of maintain my [defensive stance] on guys,” Robinson said.

There’s an inkling that the 7-foot center will thrive and find stability under Thibodeau, who demands accountability. Robinson’s game is tailor-fit to Thibodeau’s style.

“Basically like, Tom is more of a defensive-type style of coach. We really don’t do much offense. From what I see, if he gets stops, those stops will turn buckets for you and your team. I feel like he’s mainly focused on the defensive end more than the offense, but he’s just more technical on the defensive end,” Robinson said.

Expanding his game

The Louisiana native has also worked on his shooting, with several videos of him pulling from beyond the arc made the rounds on social media.

Thibodeau, who said one of their game plans this season is to generate more corner threes, has welcomed that effort from the Robinson.

“The thing about Mitch is we’re in a day and age where you want guys to be all-around players. You want them to have the ability to make plays off the dribble. Put him on the floor make plays in the post. Obviously, the way he finishes around the basket is special and unique, and that’s his strength and will always be his strength. But I would never want to put a limit to what he can become,” Thibodeau said.

“We’ve seen throughout the league where guys that historically have been inside players and moved out to the perimeter and usually you start with the corner three. If we can get to the point where he is comfortable with his free throws and then extend out beyond that, so be it. That’s something that we do want him to work out.”

Robinson has been a 58-percent free-throw shooter, and he hasn’t attempted a three-pointer in his career.

Play with his strengths

While Robinson is in the process of expanding his offensive game, Thibodeau wants him to continue to take advantage of his strengths. And so far, Thibodeau has seen encouraging signs from Robinson, who will compete with veteran Nerlens Noel for the starting center spot.

“But also, we want him to play with his strengths and cover up whatever weaknesses he may have. And the big thing is every day, he comes in and tries to get better. Hopefully, he’ll do that throughout the course of the year. If he’s willing to work and make the commitment, there’s no telling what he can do,” Thibodeau said.

Which road will Robinson choose to take?

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo