Knicks center Mitchell Robinson looks on against the Sacramento Kings...

Knicks center Mitchell Robinson looks on against the Sacramento Kings in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

SALT LAKE CITY — The Knicks have enjoyed watching the growth of Mitchell Robinson from a raw, athletic big to a, well, still-raw-in-some-ways center who anchors the team’s defense. But as the trade deadline approaches, they also have to consider the uncertainty of his future with the franchise.

Selected in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft without a season of college ball, Robinson has gotten stronger and smarter defensively. For a coach like Tom Thibodeau who starts his defensive game plans with a rim-protecting center, Robinson holds huge value.

But because of salary cap rules, the Knicks find themselves in the odd position of possibly losing him as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. They are limited with what they can offer him until he becomes unrestricted and available to any team. At that time, holding his Bird rights, the Knicks could pay him up to 25% of the $121 million salary cap for 2022-23 — but that is unlikely.

And that puts them on the clock for a decision by Thursday’s trade deadline.

"Whatever happens happens," Robinson said after the Knicks’ morning shootaround at Vivint Arena. "Really, I mean, I’m just here to play basketball. That’s the main thing. It’s still in the season. You’re not worried about the offseason or the break. Focus on what’s in front of us. Got a game today."

Robinson originally was signed to a three-year, $4.7 million deal. The Knicks exercised a team option for $1.8 million this season rather than allowing him to become a restricted free agent, which would have given them the chance to match any offer. It wasn’t an unreasonable decision. Robinson was coming off a season in which he played only 31 games while rehabilitating from a broken hand and then a broken foot. The latter injury is one that carries risks of recurrence with NBA big men.

The Knicks held an insurance policy, bringing back Nerlens Noel with a three-year, $27 million deal (with the first two years guaranteed), but Noel has dealt with nearly constant injury troubles this season.

Before Robinson hits free agency in the offseason, the Knicks can offer him a four-year deal that would start at approximately $12 million and total about $54 million. But Robinson could look at contracts such as the five-year, $100 million deal Jarrett Allen received from Cleveland or the two-year, $46 million extension Atlanta gave Clint Capela and decide to hit the open market.

"I’m just going to continue to play hard, see what happens," he said. "I don’t think about It that much. I just want to hoop."

Asked if that is hard to do as the trade deadline approaches, he said, "No, not at all. That’s what I’ve got an agent for. He handles that so I can focus on basketball.

"We talk here and there. He’s going to handle that for me. I trust him. I’m just going to let my agent talk to that. You all can talk to him if you want. I’m just here to play basketball."

Robinson has done that this season, continuing to progress in his ability to avoid foul trouble as he has refined his rim protection.

Robinson, who confines his offensive game to dunks, layups and putbacks, entered Monday night’s game shooting 78.3% from the field this season. He was averaging 8.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

Because he was kept off his injured foot during his rehab over the summer, he lost some conditioning that he still is trying to recover, but he got stronger — a plus when he faces opponents such as the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, whom he will try to handle Tuesday night in Denver.

"Mitch did all that he could do in the summer, but he couldn’t do much," Thibodeau said. "He spent a lot of time in New York. It was basically all rehab, so unfortunately, he couldn’t get out to the court, which we needed him to do.

"But you have to make the best of your circumstances, which is, I was proud of what he did. He put a lot of time into the weight room. He watched film. He did all those things with our trainers, our coaches. He did all of that. And that’s all you could ask of a player.

"I think he missed a significant part of last season, too — you can’t overlook that — and then the whole summer, and that’s unfortunate, but that’s what we had to do. And I think he’s getting his legs under him now."

Notes & quotes: Kemba Walker was held out of Monday night’s game against the Jazz, the front end of a back-to-back set. He has struggled through issues with his left knee, and the Knicks seem resigned to holding him out of half of the back-to-back sets.


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