In the first half of the Knicks' 100-92 loss to the Miami Heat Saturday night, Goran Dragic found himself open for three in the corner. Mitchell Robinson, the 20-year-old second-round pick, closed out on the shifty guard, dissuading the shot while being in position to guard the ensuing iso. Dragic tried to speed by Robinson, then fake him out, but the neophyte was steady, and smothered Dragic on his forced attempt.
On the night, he finished with nine points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and three steals. This type of stat line and defensive performance has become ordinary for Robinson since the All-Star break, providing a silver lining to an otherwise bleak season -- 62 losses and counting, owner-fan feuds and a midseason deal shipping away your best prospect (who is reportedly under NYPD investigation for a rape accusation.) But Knick fans can rejoice over one takeaway: Robinson is a building block for this franchise's future.
What that future holds is a mystery until the summer. The Knicks are essentially going in one of two ways: securing stars or enough really good players to start competing again right away, or continue to rebuild with a flexible cap situation and developing young guys. Robinson can satisfy both directions.
Robinson hadn't played high-level basketball in a year when the Knicks drafted him. He was supposed to be a project. Then came Summer League, and Robinson immediately looked promising and comfortable. There was some rawness, but he knew his role and had a knack for defensive positioning and timing. Even after a standout performance in Las Vegas, it was difficult to expect he'd be an NBA starter in his first season. But he is.
Robinson has made fewer mistakes as the season has gone on, and with help from his newfound mentor DeAndre Jordan, he's become a reliable force. His 7'4" wingspan can get to seemingly anything. Robinson blocked a fading Dwyane Wade jumper in that same game, and has been swatting jumpers every night. He's been smart about it too, falling for few fakes and baiting opponents into his superhuman reach. The statistics being circulated have been remarkable; he has the highest block rate in NBA history, a 21-rebound game which was the most for a Knicks rookie since Willis Reed in 1965, 24 straight games with at least two blocks and is ranked 24th in PER. At the pace he's improving at, he can absolutely be the starting center for a contender, a perfect match for say, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
If things go a different way, and the Knicks come into next season with still mostly a young core with draft picks incoming and a culture to build, that's okay too. Robinson has shown enough to prove he's no ordinary late draft steal. His rookie season has been such an ascension, there's no telling exactly what his ceiling is. The Rudy Gobert comparison has been thrown around, but this historic tear Robinson has been on makes it feel like a low bar.
Whatever he ends up being, he'll be good enough to build around. A pairing of him and Zion Williamson in the frontcourt would be a terror to score on or jump with. He's the potential anchor to a future top tier defense, and you've already got another stud on that end in Frank Ntilikina. Dennis Smith Jr. has a great feel for the lob, a blooming chemistry with Robinson in waiting. Either way the Knicks go, they found a player they can bank on for what comes next.