Knicks center Mitchell Robinson dunks against the Boston Celtics during...

Knicks center Mitchell Robinson dunks against the Boston Celtics during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

In the Knicks’ locker room before Saturday night’s 121-112 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Mitchell Robinson was approached by a reporter, and after making the usual small talk — exchanging insults and taking it back, all with a wide smile — he was told about the ESPN list of the top 100 players in the NBA that surfaced this past week.

While he does pop on social media more than occasionally, sometimes contrary to the wishes of the organization, Robinson hadn’t seen the list. When he was told six Knicks were in the top 100, he was intrigued, asking who had made it. When told he was among the six, he was surprised to hear it. And when he was told that he was the last spot, he didn’t mind.

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine with me. It’s great. I’m him.”

Robinson actually was No. 98 last year, but it all represents a bit of recognition for a player who rarely receives attention. Ask fans the keys to the Knicks’ success and they will point to Jalen Brunson, maybe to Julius Randle and even RJ Barrett. A few may praise Quentin Grimes or Immanuel Quickley.

Robinson has never averaged double-figures in scoring, and even if coach Tom Thibodeau insists he is the best offensive rebounder in the game (he was second only to the Grizzlies’ Steven Adams with 4.5 per game last season), he has not reached double-figures in rebounding, either.

Robinson has been in the top 10 in blocked shots per game in four of his five seasons but never has managed a spot on the All-Defensive team.

So while he may be important to the Knicks, it’s not the resume that gets attention for awards and honors. He often seems like a placeholder for the fan base — manning the middle until the team can pry a star big man from another team, whether it’s Joel Embiid or even Karl-Anthony Towns, whom Robinson chased down to pin a shot against the backboard Saturday night.

“Nah, I really don’t care,” Robinson said. “I mean, I guess [it’s because I don’t score a lot]. It is what it is. I just come in here, work hard.”

Said Thibodeau: “Oftentimes people will overlook what Mitch brings to the team. And I think it’s a big mistake. I think he brings great value to the team because of offensive rebounding, the pressure on the rim, the screening. Those things are huge for our offense. When you understand the value of shots, the kick-out threes, getting to the free-throw line, getting to the bonus early each quarter, those are things that help you win.”

If the value of Robinson is overlooked at times leaguewide, it isn’t by Thibodeau, who loves having the sort of defensive anchor that Robinson has become.

As odd as it may seem, Robinson, 25, is the longest-tenured player on the Knicks. He’s the lone holdover from the 17-65 season in 2018-19, when he was a rookie without any college experience after joining the Knicks as a second-round pick.

Spending four seasons under Thibodeau has helped him shake off his early bad habits — foul trouble, trying to block every shot — and turn him into a valuable player for the team.

“Yeah, it goes hand in hand,” he said of playing for a defensive-minded coach. “Yeah, also just being around. The game has kind of slowed down for me. So it’s like having Thibs and having the game slow down, it just connected.”

Notes & quotes: Thibodeau was asked about Jeff Van Gundy — who hired him as a Knicks assistant coach decades earlier — signing on with the Celtics as a senior consultant, a move that was revealed Saturday. “Obviously, he’s had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of things,’’ he said. “We’re very close friends, obviously. So I’m happy for him because there are certain things that he’s looking for, and I think he was able to find them there. He’s not only a great coach, he’s a great person. So whatever is next for him, I know he’ll be great at it. But I just want him to be happy, and I think he will be.” Asked what he thinks of Van Gundy in Celtics green and white, he smiled and said, “Disgusting.” He did add, in reference to his own time as a Celtics assistant coach, “I have a little bit of a soft spot.” .  .  .   After playing less than six minutes in the opener, Brunson played 14 minutes. Barrett scored 23 points.


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