The moment Roy Hibbert stuffed Carmelo Anthony at the rim, the modest progression of the Knicks was halted.
In fact, that block didn’t just send the Knicks home early that season — in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals — it sent the franchise backwards.
It led to the eventual end of Tyson Chandler and two trades (Chandler, for one, and the other being the ill-fated Andrea Bargnani trade) that would set the franchise back even further. Six years later, the Knicks have a player who is quickly becoming their most promising prospect. His game, ironically, is much like Chandler’s and yet it is now considered a valuable asset.
“He has a lot of potential,” all-star center Joel Embiid said of Mitchell Robinson, who recorded four blocks — including two against Embiid — on Wednesday night at the Garden. “He’s got a chance to be a good big man in this league.”
Robinson was a second round pick by the Knicks at No. 36 overall. It was a selection the Knicks gained when they traded Carmelo Anthony. And there’s your full circle.
The Knicks did extensive homework on Robinson, who had a lot of red flags when he entered the draft pool because he left Western Kentucky before he even played a game there and basically went an entire season without playing organized basketball. But GM Scott Perry had some insight and knew only two other teams, including the Lakers, had Robinson on their radar. The Lakers opted to use their first round pick (25th overall) on Mo Wagner.
This is significant not just because of Robinson’s potential. It marks the return of a potential defensive force to a team that has been among the worst in defense since Mike Woodson was fired and Phil Jackson traded Chandler for some players and two second round picks in the 2014 draft that could have landed Nikola Jokic (taken No. 41), but instead turned into Cleanthony Early (34th). Here is where we’ll mention that Thanasis Antetokounmpo was selected by the Knicks at No. 51.
Which leads us to a headline from before the game, when it was revealed by agent Giorgos Panou in a documentary set to air on TNT over All-Star weekend, that the Knicks were the only team in the NBA that did not scout Panou’s prized client (and Thanasis’ brother), Giannis Antetokounmpo. Panou said after the inexhaustible Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress posted video and a report on Giannis, NBA scouts started to flock. “Every team came, you know. Twenty-nine teams,” Panou says in the documentary. “Except Knicks, New York Knicks.”
Now we should mention here the Knicks had the 24th pick, so they would not have had a chance to draft Antetokounmpo, who went 15th overall to the Bucks. That year, the Cavaliers, who were one of the teams who did scout the Greek Freak, took Anthony Bennett (UNLV) with the first overall pick.
That brings us back to Robinson, who may not have an invite to the Rising Stars Challenge game at All-Star weekend, but in this year’s draft class so far he’s among the most promising players to watch, especially among those taken after the lottery. He had another flurry of dunks and blocks and hustle plays. He caught Embiid by surprise when he easily rejected a drive.
“A couple of times I thought I had a shot and he just came up with his long arms and blocked it,” Embiid said to MSG’s Rebecca Haarlow.
Robinson finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds with 4 blocks and was +9 in 28:25. He called Embiid’s comments a “big honor” and added, “it makes me want to work even harder and play even harder, and get better.”
Robinson should be part of some winning in the future for this team, but right now there are too many holes to fill on a leaky defense that has this team sinking to what is now 18 straight losses and 17 straight at the Garden.
– The Knicks bench put up 74 points with four players in double figures. Along with Robinson, there was Allonzo Trier (19 points), Damyean Dotson (16 points) and Kadeem Allen (13 points). It was an entertaining first half but the Sixers built a 16-point lead at halftime and it grew to as many as 26 in the third quarter. The Knicks bench managed to cut it to nine going into the fourth. Each time the Knicks seemed to make a push, however, the Sixers hit dagger threes. Luke Kornet hit a three with 6:41 to go to cut it to 111-105, but Mike Scott answered with a three at the other end to push it back to a 9-point game. Then, after Robinson blocked Embiid, Dotson had a wide-open look from three that could have brought the Knicks to within four with 3:03 to go, but it missed. Eleven seconds later, Tobias Harris drained a three to put Philly up 119-109. The Knicks shot just 40% from the field and were nine for 29 from three, which are two of the team’s biggest problems that need to be solved this offseason.
– Embiid took out celebrity row and the broadcast table when he chased down an errant pass in the third quarter. The 7-foot, 250-pound center leaped feet-first over the first row, where his sneaker grazed the hair of actress Regina King, but then went straight into the ribs of longtime MSG Networks statistician Dave Fried. Embiid immediately checked on Fried and helped him up. Fried managed to fix his glasses, compose himself and then give a thumbs up to the camera. After the game, Haarlow brought Fried into her interview with Embiid and the Sixers all-star apologized. “That’s my fault,” he said. “Maybe next time I shouldn’t try to land with my feet first.” In over 25 years doing stats for MSG, Fried said he’s dealt with players diving into the crowd for a loose ball. He mentioned Charles Oakley and Robert Pack as times he was taken out by a player, “but never that large.”
– Kevin Knox (9 points) struggled for most of the night and his three-point shot needs some serious recalibration. But he did put down a monster dunk over Ben Simmons in the second quarter which sent the Garden into a frenzy. It was the second time in as many nights that Simmons got posterized. On Tuesday night Jayson Tatum of the Celtics dunked on him on a pretty spin move. Knox has potential as a finisher at the rim, but he clearly needs an offseason or two of strength training to get himself to where he can be consistently effective. He’s also going to need it to be a better defender, but awareness and focus are some other issues he has at that end of the floor.
– Simmons and Dennis Smith Jr. exchanged words at the end of first half after some physical defense by both. There was nothing said afterward about it. Simmons finished with 18 points and seven assists and took 14 free throws. Meanwhile, Smith had another really quiet game that began with early foul trouble. He finished with 13 points and five assists on five of 15 shooting. He, like Simmons, didn’t attempt a single three in the game. Since his 31-point performance in Detroit a week ago, Smith is averaging just 12 points and five assists on 31.8% shooting in the last three games. He’s made just one of six from downtown in those games.
– Mario Hezonja got the start, as David Fizdale tried a bigger lineup against Philadephia’s big lineup. But Hezonja played just 6:29 and didn’t score. Fizdale said Hezonja had a calf issue, but didn’t consider it anything serious.
– The Knicks play their final game before the All-Star break on Thursday night against the Hawks in Atlanta.
[Coverage Of Knicks-Hawks Gets Under Way Tonight At 7 On MSG & MSG GO.]