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Mitchell Robinson starting again as Knicks evaluate rookie's growth

Knicks center Mitchell Robinson looks on against the

Knicks center Mitchell Robinson looks on against the Toronto Raptors during the first half at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It’s safe to say there is little cause for optimism on a nightly basis as the Knicks finish out the season. But at least a hint of what the future could hold began Saturday when the Knicks placed Mitchell Robinson in the starting lineup.

Robinson had not started a game since November 18 when a 12-game experiment for the rookie who turns 21 Monday came to an end. The quick and constant foul trouble had made starting him mean that by minutes into the game he was already limited. His final game as a starter lasted just eight minutes and 42 seconds before he’d piled up five fouls.

But amid the 14-62 season one of the few bright spots has been the progress of Robinson, working out as he made the jump from high school directly to the NBA when the Knicks made him a second-round pick. So with just a handful of games remaining Knicks coach David Fizdale decided it was time to see him in the starting lineup again.

“Something that we’ve been talking about all year is how will we progress him,” Fizdale said. “Early in the season we tried to start him and I thought it was too early. He was getting in foul trouble and things like that. We just felt like with a few games left in the season let’s take a look at it before the year is up. Use these games to see if he can play big minutes and stay out of foul trouble.”

Robinson played 37 minutes Saturday, getting 14 rebounds and scoring nine points — converting all four of his field goal attempts, none from further than about an arm's length from the rim. More typical, he had three steals and four blocked shots. He has now blocked at least two shots in 24 straight games, the third longest streak for any NBA rookie in history.

“I feel very different,” Mitchell said, comparing himself to the neophyte who could not stay out of foul trouble early in the year. “Got in foul trouble kind of early, that kind of gave me a reason to sit for a little bit. But [I’m] out here to get better and just compete.”

“I just felt like he’s made so many strides throughout the season that this would be a great pocket of games to evaluate to see if he can handle that,” Fizdale said. “If it’s a struggle for whatever reason we can figure out where he’s struggling and what’s going wrong and how to help him so he can take that next jump.

“I mean it’s night and day compared to where he was . . . I think he’s shown that as you challenge him he continues to take it on and hopefully this will be a good challenge for him.”

Giving Robinson the starting assignment and major minutes meant there would be a counter to that and it came for DeAndre Jordan, who not only did not start, but never got off the bench Saturday.

“I can’t speak highly enough of DJ,” Fizdale said. “This guy, I spoke to him [Saturday morning] about it and asked him what he thought. The pro that he is, it’s exactly what he’s been since he’s got here. He sacrificed going to another team to stay here with the Knicks to play for us and to help Mitchell. Every single thing I’ve asked up to this point, he’s done it. And even when I asked this he said, 'Coach, let’s get that kid in there, let’s see what he can do. And I’ll be ready for you.’ I didn’t know DJ that well before he got here. I knew him more personally. But now that he’s been here, I can say he’s one of the most professional veterans I’ve ever been around. He’s been a great leader and mentor in this thing.”

There are next steps for Robinson still. The 7-1 center said that in high school he regularly was an offensive focus and even took three-point shots. This season he has attempted just two shots from outside of 10 feet.

“The biggest thing I’m trying to see is if he can consistently handle real minutes for these games,” Fizdale said. “We’ll sprinkle some stuff in just to get his feet wet on some things. Ultimately it’s the capacity to handle big minutes and do it without fouling and have a lot of discipline.

“As many times as he’s blocked shots and saved our butts at the rim, I’ve got to run him a play for a three. He’s been working on it, that’s for sure.”

“I feel like this year will be a learning,” Robinson added. “I’m not really comfortable shooting right now. Trying to get better down low. Because all through high school I was basically shooting and doing all that stuff. I’m trying to learn different pieces. So this year I wasn’t really looking forward to plays being drawn up for me. Next year maybe. But definitely down the line.”

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