Any conversation about the future of the Knicks is bound to include Mitchell Robinson, one of the few pieces the franchise is confident will be valuable, a player with limitless potential.
But that potential still seems a long way off at times, explaining why he started only seven games last season, his second in the league, and fouled out of as many games as he started. He set an NBA record by converting 74.2% of his field-goal attempts, but he also might be approaching a record after signing with a sixth different agent in two seasons.
Nerlens Noel was brought in to complement him at center, although Robinson could find himself battling for the starting job if he does not show progress.
"The thing about Mitch is we’re in a day and age where you want guys to be all-around players," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "You want them to be able to make plays off the dribble, put it on the floor, make plays in the post. Obviously, the way he finishes around the basket is special and unique and that’s his strength and will always be his strength. I would never want to put a lid on what he can become."
Robinson has game-altering length and athleticism, but the high ceiling matters only if he approaches it. With his third coach, he finds himself trying to tap that potential. He has worked to get stronger, putting on 10 pounds over the summer, and has developed his offense in hopes of getting more than an arm’s reach from the rim.
"I’m not just going to come out launching threes," Robinson said. "Even if the shot goes in, they’re not going to tell me to take it. This year, I’m more comfortable with the way I’ve been shooting lately, so why not? I’ve just been working on it just so if the shot presents itself. I’m not going to go out there launching shots."
"We’ve seen throughout the league guys who historically have been inside players moved out to the perimeter," Thibodeau said. "Usually you start with a corner three. If we can get to a point where he’s comfortable with his free throws and extend out beyond that, so be it. That’s something that we do want him to work on, but we also want him to play to his strengths and cover up whatever weaknesses he may have.
''The big thing is, every day come in and try to get better. Hopefully he’ll do that throughout the course of the year. As I mentioned, there’s a huge upside with him. If he’s willing to work and make the commitment, there’s no telling what he can do."
What Robinson already can do is block shots, although he does it with an abandon that often includes reaching, lunging and fouling.
"We start with individual fundamentals and then build up to the team skills," Thibodeau said. "But there’s a lot of great instincts that he has. His ability to protect the rim is elite. Obviously, keeping him on the floor, getting him to play with a little more technique, I think he can be even more disruptive. But he has a very big upside defensively."
It all comes with a question mark at the end, the uncertainty of whether he will reach that upside.
Robinson was a second-round pick, his stock falling because teams were unsure of what he would be after he left high school, signed to play at Western Kentucky, then left the program. After investigating other schools, he re-enrolled at WKU, then changed his mind and spent the year preparing for the NBA Draft.
That was a telling precursor to what has happened with his agents. He most recently left Rich Paul and Klutch Sports for the Wasserman Group’s Thad Foucher. This is all important to the Knicks and the future, given that he signed a four-year deal when he was drafted that will pay him $1.6 million this season, with a team option for next season at $1.8 million.
"It really was just like personal stuff," Robinson said of the most recent change. "I don’t really want to get into that. But it was just personal things. I just felt like I needed to do it.
"I mean, it is [frustrating]. But it’s like a thing where you just learn and you wait until you get the right one. So that’s basically what I’m kind of doing until I get the one that’s really down for me. It’s a life lesson."