The Knicks signed Nerlens Noel just before the start of training camp and it provided the team with a backup who seemed almost too similar to Mitchell Robinson.
Now, with Robinson likely sidelined for at least a month with a fractured bone in his right hand the Knicks are hopeful that Noel can do just that — fill the hole with as close of a facsimile of Robinson as he can be, beginning Saturday against the Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden.
Robinson started every game for the Knicks this season, but in the preseason as Robinson was acclimating to Tom Thibodeau’s system Noel did get the starting assignment. And now Thibodeau believes he can do it.
"Yeah I do. In the preseason, we started him," he said. "Our starters and our bench, they’re similar in many ways. The individual strengths are a little bit different with each guy. But in terms of what they bring for the team, you can make a case that you can start all the guys that are on the second unit.
"So just be ready for the opportunity, prepare yourself well. Taj (Gibson) has been a starter, he’s been a bench guy. The one thing I do know about him is his professionalism and his readiness to play. He can sit there and not be playing but he’ll be ready to go and that adds a lot of value to the team."
While Robinson’s forte has been defense, as an athletic and intimidating shotblocker, Noel has actually averaged more than double the blocked shots per 36 minutes (4.0 to 1.9). Noel has also managed to pull down slightly more rebounds per 36 minutes.
What the Knicks have now is experience with the 26-year-old Noel and the 35-year-old Gibson (who has played for Thibodeau in both Chicago and Minnesota) holding down the middle.
"Nerlens will start. But anytime a player like Mitch goes down, you don’t replace him individually," Thibodeau said. "You have to do it collectively. And that’s where we feel good about our team. I think Taj, going in, his experience will help. Nerlens has done a terrific job for us. We want to make sure we maintain the defensive component of our team and I think those two guys can do that."
The Knicks managed to get through the first test Friday when Robinson suffered the injury in the second quarter and then after managing to stay on the floor for the rest of the second quarter was sidelined for the rest of the game as x-rays revealed the fracture. They actually expanded their lead, winning easily over the Washington Wizards.
Thibodeau provided no hint that outside help would be brought on. While the Knicks swung a trade last week to add Derrick Rose to the backcourt, he maintained that he believed that the Knicks could get by with Noel, Gibson and the possibility of playing smaller with Julius Randle at center.
But he admitted that the roster decision would not be his.
"That’s the job for Leon (Rose) and (William Wesley)," Thibodeau said. "We’re always looking at the opportunities that may be out there. But I like the guys we have. If there’s something that can make the team better we’d always consider it. But I think we have more than enough in that locker room."
Noel pointed out earlier this month that he saw his job as a mentoring role for Robinson.
"Our situations were so different coming in, so I mostly talk to him about what we need to do now on a day-to-day basis," Noel said. "Make sure you’re prepared, make sure you’re taking care of business. Mentality is everything. You come into this thing with the right mentality of getting after it and staying focused, and everything takes care of itself. I’ve seen Mitch has really grown since the first day I saw him walking in the building, even now has been tremendous growth. Every day, just being locked in, and following suit, just making sure your habits and everything is following, I think he’s done a tremendous job."