MINNEAPOLIS — In his first game with the Knicks, Isaiah Hartenstein played 40 minutes on opening night in Memphis, the most time he’d spent on the court in his career. And if that overtime game was a bit of an aberration, he played 38 minutes Saturday against the Celtics, again topping any night in his first four seasons in the NBA.
The extended minutes likely will continue with Mitchell Robinson sidelined with a sprained right knee. After he was injured Friday, the Knicks said the injury would be reevaluated in seven to 10 days.
Even before the injury, Hartenstein had played more minutes than Robinson this season, and he has been a part of the Knicks’ most positive lineups. With Robinson sidelined and the experiment with a small-ball lineup of Julius Randle at center and Obi Toppin alongside him remaining a work in progress, Hartenstein was in the starting lineup Saturday for the first time this season. Jericho Sims started at center on Monday, but Hartenstein still was expected to play the bulk of the minutes.
Tom Thibodeau has opened up opportunities for Hartenstein, and the 24-year-old says he’s ready for the increased workload.
“It’s good. That’s what I kind of came here for, more opportunities,” Hartenstein said after the Knicks’ morning shootaround at Target Center. “I’m excited. I think Thibs did a good job in the summer getting us prepared. So whatever happens, everyone’s ready to play minutes. Going in, I’m thankful that we did all that in the summer, just making myself prepared for the minutes. I’m excited.
“I think any time in the NBA, you’re going to have small-ball lineups. I think they have to still figure out how that works. We’ll see how that keeps happening. I think they can build more chemistry on the small-ball unit. I knew I’d have the opportunity to play and I know when I’m on the court, I can make a winning impact.”
“He’s great,” Thibodeau said. “His approach is terrific. He can play a lot of different roles. He’s capable of playing starters’ minutes. He can play bench minutes. We can play him at the four. He’s a basketball player. He can shoot, he can pass, gives you great rim protection.”
In his first start with the Knicks on Saturday against Boston, the 7-foot, 250-pound Hartenstein had 14 rebounds and 10 points. He came to the Knicks with a skill set of three-point shooting range to draw the defense away from the rim and slick passing ability, and he has quickly won over Knicks fans by regularly diving on the floor for loose balls and creating second chances with his hustle.
“Yeah, that’s always been one of the main parts — playing hard,” Hartenstein said. “Regardless of how many minutes I get. Keep doing that, keep trying to get guys extra possessions.”
While the hustle may endear him to the fans, the passing and shooting is a welcome addition, a different tack from Robinson or last year’s backup, Nerlens Noel. Born in Oregon — his father, Florian, played center for the University of Oregon — Hartenstein was raised in Germany, where his father went overseas to play and then coach professionally. Being raised in that environment helped form his style.
“I think that’s what they do overseas,” he said. “If you look at most overseas guys, you talk to all of them, even [two-time MVP Nikola] Jokic, all those guys, you start off playing more as a guard. I didn’t play [exclusively] center until I got to the Rockets. I had a back injury, kind of switched my position more to a bigger position.
“I still have the skills to do that. Right now, I’m just doing what the team needs. If the team needs more passing like I did last year, I can do that. If they need me to get on the ground and go for loose balls, I’ll do that. So it’s just whatever the team needs, I’m ready to do that and I have the ability to do that.”
With the increased role and responsibility, Hartenstein said he’s trying to work on another skill: being vocal and serving as a leader in communicating on defense, something he learned a bit from a former Knicks center.
“‘That’s a known thing for a center to do,” Hartenstein said. “Tyson Chandler was with the Rockets. He helped me a lot with that. Especially when you’re younger, you’re kind of scared to talk a little bit, if that’s the word. He helped me a lot being more vocal, and that makes the game easier for everybody.”