In the days leading up to Victor Wembanyama’s arrival at Madison Square Garden, Mitchell Robinson seemed confused as to why such a fuss was being made over the 7-4 rookie.
Robinson dismissed questions of how he would defend him with reminders that he grew up guarding great ball-handling guards and that he is not exactly small himself - perhaps giving up three inches in height, but making up for that with muscle added on in ways that the 19-year-old Wembanyama may, or may, not someday achieve.
And left unsaid is the simple point that Robinson is not eight games into his career. He already has established himself, finishing among the top seven in the league in blocked shots per game four times in the last five years and ranking 11th in defensive rating in each of the last two seasons. And now, currently ranked fifth in defensive rating, he has finally begun to garner attention as one of the best defensive players in the NBA.
So Robinson took on the challenge of Wembanyama’s debut at Madison Square Garden and, with a national television audience looking on, shut him down. According to ESPN, Wembanyama was 0-for-6 when Robinson was the primary defender. And the first time that he had an opportunity to face up Robinson from 10 feet out, Wembanyama couldn't create space and tossed up an air ball.
“He backed up his words,” RJ Barrett said of Robinson after it was over.
Robinson has already established himself as the best offensive rebounder in the NBA and his service as a defensive anchor for the Knicks has mainly consisted of blocked shots. But this season he has not chased blocks, instead seeming to take a step forward in positioning and instincts — he's 13th in the league in steals — and seems to deflect or deter nearly every shot and pass near the rim.
He has begun to have his name whispered as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and nights like Wednesday spread it around the game. Those honors don’t usually come when they are deserved, but eyes are opened and votes seem to come a year late, so maybe it is his time. It may have started in full last year in the playoffs when the Knicks faced the heavily hyped Cleveland Cavaliers frontline of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, and Robinson proved to be the dominant force.
When he finished off the Cavs he was asked if there was extra motivation facing them and he said, “Whoever we’re playing, we’re going to try to get the job done and play as hard as we can.”
He echoed that statement after dominating Wembanyama, dismissing an opportunity to boast.
“Doing what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “Doing my job. Playing defense. The team gets better. We play them again, so just gotta make sure I keep the same energy.”
Others have spoken up for him if he won’t. Ask Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau what the weather is and he’ll quickly pivot the subject to how well Robinson is playing. Thibodeau likes to point out that Robinson’s improvement can be measured by his net rating, which went from a negative 6.2 as a rookie to a plus 7.3 last season (and plus 7.6 through eight games this season). This has come while his blocked shots went from 2.4 per game as a rookie to just 1.0 this season.
“His defense is incredible,” Thibodeau said. “Excellent pick-and-roll defender. Rim protection. Defensive rebounding. Multiple effort guy. Really come a long way.
“It’s been steady growth. I think when you look at it, to me, probably the most important statistic there is net rating. Scoring margin, net rating tells you impact on winning. So when you look at where he was four years ago to where he is today, it’s been great strides that have been made, and the impact on winning is the most important thing.”