SAN ANTONIO — As James Dolan made his way through a 50-minute radio interview Tuesday evening the Madison Square Garden chairman and Knicks owner sometimes veered off the prepared talking points. But between the assurances that stars are coming this summer and subtle blame handed out to the big names who have departed, there was one note he read carefully.
It wasn’t the most important one in this ESPN New York session that was set up to relieve the pressure three days after Dolan had confronted a fan at Madison Square Garden. But in the long run it may turn out to be vital to changing the long-held perception of the team and its owner.
After expressing his assurances that stars would join the team, he started to list the young players that are in place now in a 13-55 season, and the one he clamped onto was Mitchell Robinson.
“The thing about the team now is that it’s very young,” Dolan said. “It’s the youngest team in the NBA, You take a look at some of the players that we have and they won’t be the centerpiece of the team, but as complements to the centerpiece of the team, we’re developing them right now. You get guys like Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo [Trier], Noah [Vonleh], [Damyean] Dotson. The whole team, they’re getting better.
“That’s a really frustrating part. They are definitely getting better. Especially Mitchell Robinson, is like a phenomenon. Take a look at [team president] Steve [Mills] and [general manager] Scott [Perry]. Mitchell Robinson was drafted in the second round, 36th overall. You know how many teams passed on Mitchell Robinson, how many wish they had Mitchell Robinson? What happened is he didn’t play [college basketball]. Teams got scared. Steve and Scott saw his ability, what we can develop in him.”
The singling out of Robinson may be as curious as Dolan skipping over 2017 lottery pick Frank Ntilikina, and pausing a long time before explaining why he let Phil Jackson make the pick 10 days before firing him as team president. But in a season nearly devoid of wins and not much better in reasons to be cheerful, Robinson has provided at least a bit of hope. Still a raw project with far more potential than a realized skill set, Robinson has excelled in one area: blocking shots.
That doesn’t mean he’s always a good defender. He admits he still makes mistakes and fouls too much. On Tuesday night in the Knicks' seventh straight loss, a 103-98 decision at Indiana, he blocked three shots and made all three of his field-goal attempts, but also picked up five fouls in 12 minutes. But he has blocked more shots per game than any rookie in Knicks history (2.4), with Patrick Ewing the only other player to record even two per game (2.06). With a minimum of 35 games played, if he can keep up the current pace for the final 14 games he would be the first rookie to average at least 2.35 blocks since Tim Duncan in 1997-98.
“I think [he will lead the league in blocks someday],” coach David Fizdale said. “I think he’s got potential to be Defensive Player of the Year. Definitely lead the league in blocked shots. He’ll be a guy. too, as a center, he’ll be a top steals guy in that position. He gets his hands on a lot of things and anticipates really well.
“We’ll keep trying to train him and fast-track him to recognize situations. A lot of the stuff he’s doing — he didn’t play a whole year of basketball. All the stuff is new and fresh and he’s seen it for the first time and he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s pretty impressive.”
The rapid ascension as a fan favorite has gotten him endorsements already — a Mercedes-Benz deal that has brought him a new vehicle in place of the muscle car he’d driven most of the season. Robinson still has goals for the final stretch of the season and the summer to come.
“Get in better shape so I can last longer on the court,” he said. “Go out and guard a little bit better than what I usually do, not let them drive to the hole so easily. That’s really it.”