NEW ORLEANS — Knicks center Mitchell Robinson is back in the Big Easy, where he spent most of an offseason in uncertainty, for Saturday’s matchup against the Pelicans.
Through five games, the Knicks’ 7-foot shot-blocker has eased much of the preseason worry, flexing his muscles literally and figuratively. The 23-year-old hasn’t shown much rust after playing just the preseason finale as he works back from surgery for the broken right foot suffered in March.
The Chalmette (La.) High School graduate still is getting too winded on the court, but he’s bigger and bolder, having put on muscle weight while spending the summer in New Orleans.
Robinson’s production and the extra element he gives the squad are jarringly evident.
Imagine if the Knicks had Robinson healthy for the playoffs against the Hawks last spring. As Robinson makes his seamless comeback from his broken right foot, it’s hard not to wonder what might have beem. It’s also hard not to wonder if he will become an unrestricted free agent this summer or sign a contract extension.
Confidants have suggested in the past that playing in New Orleans or Dallas would appeal to Robinson.
While Nerlens Noel, who started at center against Atlanta last spring, likely will make his season debut Saturday, Robinson is staying put as the starting center. There isn’t a doubt about the upside he gives the Knicks in protecting the rim and attacking the rim on offense.
“I think Mitch is working through his conditioning but he has such a great impact on the game,’’ Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s impossible to score over.’’
Robinson’s line on boxscore from Thursday’s victory over the Bulls doesn’t scream anything loudly. He scored nine points (4-for-4) with six rebounds and two blocks in 29 minutes. But he stepped up, with RJ Barrett, on the final defensive possession to force former All-Star DeMar DeRozan into an airball in the final seconds.
When Bulls coach Billy Donovan discussed facing the Knicks, he said his club had nobody to replicate Robinson’s rim protection during his practices.
Indeed, the Knicks have a big edge in that department if they face Chicago in the playoffs. Robinson and Noel are among the top shot-blockers in the NBA.
Thibodeau gave assurances Robinson will remain the starter even when Noel returns Saturday. The Knicks now have to be more cognizant of trying to lock him up. The Post has reported the Knicks have interest as long as an extension is “nothing crazy.’’
Knicks brass still can’t be certain of Robinson’s durability. His foot is still a cloud hanging over the franchise.
Already Robinson has survived two scares, leaving games limping. They turned out to be ankle tweaks and he returned on both occasions. Taj Gibson recently said Robinson indeed suffered a setback as he rehabbed over the summer.
In Chicago on Thursday, Robinson hobbled to the bench late in the first half after taking a bad step on defense, going down in a heap and ripping up his sneaker. He was in a lot of pain and stayed down on the court, but returned soon after.
“Mitch, he’s gonna play more and more as we go, and that’s the great value in the team,’’ Thibodeau said. “When we sub, there’s not a drop off. And so whoever is going good, some nights one guy will play a little more and the other guy a little less. We have elite rim protectors.’’
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Early on, Robinson was scoring mostly off terrorizing offensive put-backs, but in Chicago, he got loose for back-to-back, alley-oop dunks off lobs from Kemba Walker and Barrett.
Robinson’s rebounding is stellar (he’s averaging 9.6 in 30 minutes) and his basketball IQ — a past issue — is rising.
On the downside, Robinson still won’t take a jump shot and his free-throw shooting has regressed (38.5 percent). Meanwhile, his field-goal percentage is a league-leading 86.4 percent (19-for-22).
Thibodeau indicated Robinson probably will lose some of his weight as the season wears — which could make him quicker.
“He’s a lot stronger so I think he’s holding his ground better,’’ Thibodeau said. “I think he’s been out a long period of time so I think some of that weight will come off as we come a long here.’’
Right now, Robinson is looking mighty fine as is.