The unbridled look of joy on the players’ faces was unmistakable as the Knicks gathered near half court at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night Feb.26 after overcoming a 12-point deficit to begin the fourth quarter to defeat the Orlando Magic 108-103.
The post-game celebration was enthusiastically led by 30-year-old veteran Lance Thomas, who along with fellow 30-year-old DeAndre Jordan, the Knicks’ leading rebounder at 12.4 per game, are the oldest players on the Knicks’ roster. But Thomas, who played 15 minutes and scored just three points, and Jordan, who sat out his second straight game with a sprained left ankle, weren’t factors in the win.
It was the youngters, led by 20-year-old center Mitchell Robinson’s eye-opening stat line of 17 points, 14 rebounds, 6 blocks and 3 steals, and an unexpected contribution from recently signed Henry Ellenson, who had 13 points and nine rebounds, that spearheaded the Knicks’ third victory in their past four games.
At 13-48, they still have the second worst record in the NBA heading into tonight’s matchup at the Garden with the 14-47 Cleveland Cavaliers, but have at last experienced the uplifting feeling of winning.
Robinson’s development and production also provided more clarity to the future that Knicks president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry and head coach David Fizdale envision: Young, homegrown players that can be cornerstones to the team’s rebuild. The Knicks’ second-round pick in last June’s draft, Robinson, placed his name among some of basketball’s all-time greats on Tuesday.
He became only the seventh rookie to ever record a double-double, including five blocks, in back-to-back games. Hall of Famers David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Tim Duncan and Yao Ming are the six others according to NBA.com’s stat department.
“It’s amazing,” noted Robinson when reflecting on his rise from being a relative unknown after sitting out the college season a year ago to prepare for the draft.
“[The] kid is making history right now. He’s doing stuff, putting himself in groups, with names that are historic names,” said Fizdale. “Every single day he continues to grow and get better. He really applies what you teach him. Really, really takes it to heart and tries to do it in a game and do it exactly how you say it. His free throws [are] a perfect example.
“But his impact on the game on the defensive end is special,” emphasized Fizdale. “I mean the guy is blocking jumpers, he’s guarding guards. He’s now starting to talk. That’s a big part of DeAndre Jordan being here. And you can see it. You go back to when DJ came here. Look at Mitchell’s play from the minute he got here. So a lot of that, a lot of credit goes to DJ but obviously all of it goes to Mitchell.”
Although Robinson’s scoring is primarily limited to lob dunks and put backs off of offensive rebounds, his potential as a versatile and dominant defensive force is evident. And Jordan, who was All-NBA First Team (2016), two-time All-NBA Third Team (2015, 2017) and two-time All-NBA Defensive First-Team (2015, 2016), is the ideal mentor as the rookie’s skill set is currently almost identical to Jordan’s.
During timeouts Jordan is often seen demonstratively instructing Robinson on footwork, hand positioning and angles. Ironically, Jordan was also a second-round pick, drafted 35th overall in 2008 by the Los Angeles Clippers, while Robinson was the 36th overall pick.