Good games, weird data

Mitchell Robinson just blocked this post

Mitchell Robinson just blocked this post

Mitchell Robinson inspired actual hope in a legion of disgruntled and long-suffering Knicks fans. A long-limbed, kinetic dervish, Robinson spent the year protecting his basket and doing his very best to break the opponents. 

The Knicks drafted Robinson in the mid-second round, and he’s already more than proven the worth of their investment. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s helpful player projection tool, aptly named CARMELO, projects Robinson’s total value to net out around an all-star level (albeit with high variance in their confidence intervals).

They even go so far as to rank Mitch a bit higher than the former beloved Knicks son.

Mitchell Robinson inspired actual hope in Knicks fandom. How exactly did he evolve from second-round flier to potential franchise cornerstone?

He’s beloved by advanced metrics

My z-scoring model for rookies, which tracks standard deviations above a rookie average for several stats, had Robinson winning Rookie of the Year. His hugely impressive advanced stats powered the majority of his total score; this graph shows the number of deviations above the mean Robinson had for each key stat.

Per Basketball Reference, only three rookies posted a better defensive plus/minus. The list includes shot-blocking savants like Manute Bol and Mark Eaton and, funnily enough, the mostly backup big Greg Stiemsma. 

Box score plus/minus helps quantify impact, but it does pose difficulties. For teams like the Knicks, an improvement in the numbers only means a change from worst to just bad. In on-off metrics, Robinson finished in the 87th percentile for improving his team’s effective field goal rate and 91st in reducing his opponents’ efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass.

Robinson surely increased his team’s production, but this improvement act like reductions to the New York subway issues; sure, the delays get smaller, but the system as a whole never becomes competent. We can still celebrate that growth, though!

Even with that caveat, one advanced stat that no one can take away is win shares per 48 minutes. Among rookies with at least 300 minutes, Robinson posted the tenth best WS/48 of all time. Neither could top the actual leader in rookie WS/48 however.

He blocked everything in sight

Anyone blessed with a decent vertical or a shorter little sibling knows the abject joy of swatting a shot out of the sky. Mitchell Robinson is the physical embodiment of that feeling.

Robinson turned blocks into an art form in his rookie year. He led the entire league in block rate per Basketball Reference at 10%. Block rate measures the percentage of opponents’ two point field goals blocked by the player. This means that while Robinson was on the floor, Basketball Reference estimated that he blocked ten percent of his opponents’ non-three pointers.

Cleaning the Glass adjusts their stats to avoid garbage time, meaning a sadly large chunk of the Knicks season might be ineligible. Per their calculations Robinson finished second overall and first among players with at least 300 minutes played; shout out to Celtics rookie Robert Williams, a sort of strange analog to Mitch, for coming in first.

With that minute filter, here’s the entire list of any NBA rookie, ever, who posted a block rate of 10% or above:

Manute Bol

That’s the entire list. Bol barely eked out Robinson his rookie year with a block rate of 10.6%. To Bol’s credit, he also maintained that efficiency in nearly twice as many minutes. Bol averaged five blocks per game his rookie year, second all-time after Mark Eaton’s 5.6 in 1985. Caveat being that the NBA did not always track blocks, so legends like Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain will be missing.

Giri Nathan at Deadspin highlighted some of Robinson’s most iconic blocks. I’ll always remember his early performance against the Orlando Magic as the first sign of excellence. In another Knicks blowout, Robinson hinted at a game-breaking potential that seemed pulled straight from NBA Jam.

He put up nine blocks in slightly over twenty-two minutes played. Adjusting for garbage time, Robinson produced a 18.8% block rate in fourteen minutes, per Cleaning the Glass. This means that nearly one out of every five shots taken by the Magic got sent back by Mitch.

His impact extended beyond just blocks, however. Opponents shot 60.3% at the rim with Mitch on the court, good for 78th percentile per CLG. This represented a -3.6% drop when he was on court compared to while he sat on the bench. He also dropped three point accuracy by 3.1%. This might sound like odd noise in the data until you see Mitch fly across the court to swat a three.

He’s a rarely used, hyper-efficient offensive threat

While terrorizing opponents on the defensive end, Robinson spent the majority of his rookie year deferring on offense. Robinson posted a bottom-four percentile for usage rate per CLG. He showed a hyper-efficient true shooting rate at 69.2%, good for third best of any rookie, ever. Yet, he had little diversity in shot selection.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Robinson took 97% of his shots at the rim,. All eligible shots fall in this amazing shot chart from CLG.

Is that a shot chart, or a kid’s drawing of the sun?

Robinson converts alley-oops from any conceivable angle, combining elevation with flexibility to dunk across many different heads. His scoring depended on others playmaking for him, with 63% of his made baskets come off assists per CLG. I’m unconvinced this poses an issue, though, as I seriously doubt the Knicks ask their young big to alter his efficient rim-runner game.

What can he focus on for year two?

Much like the path forward for Kevin Knox, Mitch could benefit immensely from improvement from the lead playmakers. If Dennis Smith, Jr. can take a leap forward, or if Elfrid Payton ends up owning more of the workload and keeps his career assist rates in tact, Robinson will enjoy improved looks at the rim. We hope for Mitchell Robinson that these point guards will improve.

Here’s how Payton produced as a playmaker per Cleaning the Glass’s assist to usage ratio: anything in orange represents improvement over the average player.

Payton’s emphasis on empowering his bigs could reap dividends for Robinson. Per’s tracking stats, Robinson produced below-average field goal rates (for his lofty benchmark) when getting a pass from Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay posted an abysmal 0.90% assist to usage rate, per Cleaning the Glass. For someone currently dependent on his guards to produce offensively, Robinson needs sustained growth from the Knicks’ lead guards to take the next step. 

Beyond improvements at point, Robinson may benefit from an entirely new cast of frontcourt mates. The Knicks signed a multitude of wings and bigs, adding Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris, and most notably Julius Randle to the mix. Randle figures to pair most frequently with Robinson, as both represent foundational young prospects for the rebuilding squad. 

What Julius Randle can do for mitch

The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov wrote a brilliant analysis of exactly what to expect from Randle next season. The growth and chemistry that Randle and Robinson develop will be key to each players’ improvement. He explained:

Robinson is only an offensive threat around the rim at this point. Although Robinson could probably play alongside Randle defensively, guarding the rim and making up for mistakes there, moving him further out could make for an awkward fit on offense. Randle was able to play off Davis in the post last year, cutting off-ball and using the space and attention focused on Davis created for him. He wouldn’t have that playing alongside Robinson, who is dependent on others to create for him at this point. Even if Randle’s perimeter shot is improving, he’s still not a large enough threat to make it easier on Robinson. Teams were willing to lay off him beyond the 3-point line, which would only muddy things for Robinson.

The Knicks hope that Mitchell Robinson sees a more open court with Randle’s diverse offensive output and improving midrange game, but as you can see in Cleaning the Glass’s shot chart for him, there’s still a large, firey orange surrounding the paint.

Navigating that crowded area on offense will be key for Robinson’s continued offensive development. He may even be experimenting with some longer jumpers, as broken out in this great Knicks Wall piece, but I’m skeptical we’ll see Mitch expand to three point range next year.

Hope for Mitchell Robinson and the Knicks

Beyond his integration with new teammates, Robinson also needs to focus on reducing his fouls. He averaged 5.7 fouls per 36 minutes according to Basketball Reference, often letting his pursuit of a block place him in foul trouble. Minimizing his fouls while maintaining his aggression in blocking shots will be a tightrope for the young big to navigate, but that growth is vital if he wants to take the next step.

And, if he does take that leap, the Knicks have a foundational piece, who elicits more “get that shit out” yells from Knicks fans that any player in recent memory. Mitchell Robinson just might inspire hope in these fans yet.

Subscribe to Warm the Bench

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson