NEW ORLEANS — For Mitchell Robinson, this is home, having grown up nearby and still spending his offseasons on the bayou. But as he returned this time it marked his first chance to play in front of his friends and family since the 16th game of his rookie year.
In the 2019-20 season the Knicks never got to play in New Orleans with the season cut short by COVID-19. And then last season, Robinson was plagued by injuries, his season long over by the time the Knicks traveled to Smoothie King Center.
So there was something special for Robinson to be able to take the floor in front of friends and family, not only back in action but starting for a first-place team and starting to reach the heights that he had hinted at when he was finding his way into the NBA.
"Yeah, it’s my home," Robinson said after the Knicks’ morning walk-through preparing for the game. "It don’t get better than that. It’s home. Just go out here and play hard. It’s going to be amazing, playing at home in front of my friends and family. Going to be amazing."
It might have seemed unlikely he would be in this position just a few weeks ago. When the Knicks were going through training camp Robinson often spent the practice time working alone or with a trainer, trying to make a comeback from surgery to repair the broken foot that ended his season. But he emerged suddenly for the final preseason game and has been the starting center since opening night.
And with the time away, on the sidelines watching, working in the weight room and studying film he has emerged as a better version of himself. He has been the anchor of the Knicks defense, averaging 1.4 blocks per game and grabbing 9.6 rebounds. Offensively, he has been remarkably efficient — nothing new for a player who two seasons ago set an NBA record by converting on 74.2% of his field-goal attempts.
But even for Robinson this has been a special five-game span, connecting on 19 of 22 field goal attempts. He was 16 of 16 on dunk attempts and 3 of 5 on the rest of his shots, the longest attempt measured at four feet from the rim. After spending the summer remaking his body, adding muscle and approximately 50 pounds from the time he was drafted, he has dunked in traffic, often flexing after a conversion. In the last two games he found himself matched up with Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic and muscled his way through.
"I mean. I just go out and play hard," Robinson said. "I feel my weight has helped tremendously. The last two years they would’ve bumped me I would’ve jumped three feet away. Now it’s different. I’m not really bugging like that. It don’t feel much different."
While he does flash the occasional flex he said that he doesn’t engage in any talk as he battles in the paint.
"Nah, I can’t talk until if I get stops," he said, "if I’m getting scored on I don’t like to talk to nobody. That don’t look good, talking but still getting scored on. You can’t do that. I really wait til the end of the game and then we’ll talk . . . They really ain’t talking to me. Nobody hasn’t really said nothing to me so far."
There is one discussion that Robinson will need to have at some point — contract talks with the Knicks. He is a free agent at season’s end and because of salary cap constraints, he actually might be able to make more if he leaves the Knicks. The team can offer him a four-year extension worth up to $54 million. The team paid Nerlens Noel, who started while Robinson was out last year, $27 million over three years, and Noel is expected back from his own injury problems soon.
"Honestly, I mean, me I just want to play," he said. "I don’t care if I start or not start. As far as the contract the season just started so I’m not really too much worried about that. [I want to] stay healthy and continue to play hard and get better each game."