At the Knicks’ practice facility in Tarrytown, N.Y., earlier this week, there were good fouls, bad fouls and push-ups. It all had to do with the rookie center Mitchell Robinson, whose defense in the first two months of his N.B.A. career has ranged from dazzling, as in nine blocks against Orlando, to disastrous, as in six fouls in nine minutes against New Orleans.
So Knicks Coach David Fizdale made a deal with Robinson. “If he doesn’t do the foul where his hands are down, I got to do push-ups,” Fizdale said. “And if he does, then he has to do push-ups. So you might see my body change here. I’m about to get in shape, man. I hope I’m doing push-ups. Trust me, I hope.”
The Knicks took a gamble on the 7-foot-1 Robinson when they selected him in the second round of the June draft with the 36th pick over all. He was the only player in this year’s draft who did not play in college, overseas or in the N.B.A.’s developmental G League. Instead, Robinson took a year off from organized basketball after high school to get ready for the draft.
Considered a top recruit coming out of Chalmette High School in Louisiana, Robinson committed to Western Kentucky, left campus before the season started, considered other colleges and then returned briefly to the Hilltoppers before finally deciding to skip college altogether. By that point, playing overseas or in the G League wasn’t an option.
His muddled path led to him falling into the draft’s second round. “I probably would have been a different draft pick if I went to Western Kentucky,” Robinson said. “But I think I ended up in a good spot with the New York Knicks. I fell into good hands.”
The N.B.A.’s one-and-done rule continues to draw a lot of criticism and could be repealed in the next few years, but until it is, players have to be 19 years old and a year out of high school before being eligible for the N.B.A. That yearlong gap has led to unconventional paths to the N.B.A., including Robinson’s improvised sabbatical and a decision by Darius Bazley to sign with a prominent agent and secure an internship and shoe deal at New Balance while he waits to become eligible for the league.
But do these less traditional paths to the N.B.A. ultimately matter if the end result — a spot on an N.B.A. roster — is the same? “Yeah, it matters,” Fizdale said. “Absolutely it matters. There’s no other way to substitute playing for a year, especially at that age. That’s a big development year, especially for a young kid. Same with Emmanuel. He didn’t play a lot of games over in China, so he basically missed a year of competition learning basketball and the ins and outs of five-on-five competition.”
Fizdale was referring to Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who was also a top prospect coming out of high school, in Texas. After committing to play for Larry Brown at Southern Methodist, however, he decided to instead accept a one-year, $1.2 million deal to play for the Guangdong Southern Tigers, one of the premier teams in the Chinese Basketball Association.
“When I made that decision, our lives changed,” Mudiay said in explaining his decision. “My mom was working a few jobs at a time. We were on food stamps. I barely got to see her at times. Everyone was doing everything they could to get by.”
Playing in China was another stop on an arduous journey. Mudiay was born in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). After his father died when he was young, the family emigrated to Dallas, where his mother raised her three sons.
But Mudiay’s time in China was challenging, too, in part because he was sidelined for three months after an ankle injury. Still, he said he wouldn’t change a thing. “That decision was strictly for her,” he said in reference to his mother. “I didn’t even need that money. I’d rather give that all to her.”
In the 2015 draft, Denver selected Mudiay with the seventh overall pick. But after failing to meet the team’s expectations, he was traded to the Knicks in a three-way deal last February.
Now a regular in Fizdale’s revolving lineup, Mudiay is averaging 12.9 points and 3.3 assists a game after a career-high 34 points and 8 assists on Friday night in a 126-124 overtime win at Charlotte. “He’s really coming along,” Fizdale said. “He’s really taken some long strides from where he was until now.’’
It’s also easy to forget that Mudiay is only 22, given his circuitous route to the Knicks. “People think I’m 28 or 29,” he said. “Even guys on the team.”
Those teammates, including Robinson, have had a challenging time this season. The Knicks are 9-21 heading into Sunday’s game in Indiana against the Pacers, and their only star, Kristaps Porzingis, is still recovering from the serious knee injury he sustained last February.
But what the Knicks do have, at least, is potential, since so many players are still so young. Like Mudiay, Allonzo Trier, a 6-5 guard who has been one of the bigger surprises in the league this season, is just 22. The undrafted rookie, who played three seasons at Arizona, signed a two-year deal with the Knicks on Thursday that is worth $7 million.
In June’s draft, the Knicks opted for Robinson over Trier with their second-round pick given their need for a big man. And in light of his time away from competitive basketball, Robinson, who is just 20, has been the team’s most ambitious work in progress the last few months. Against Charlotte on Friday, he sprained his ankle and had to leave the game. X-rays were negative, but for now he will do his learning on the sideline, still trying to make up lost time.
“We probably coach him the hardest because he’s the most raw out of all of them, but he’s a joy to work with,” Fizdale said. “Can you imagine that? You come out of high school and you sit out for a whole year and now you’re standing in the middle of Madison Square Garden.”
Or else doing push-ups. Though the push-up agreement between Fizdale and Robinson has been limited to practices, the coach isn’t ruling out a game-time “give me five” if the reach-in fouls continue.
“I might make him do it if he gets a couple in a row,” Fizdale said. “In front of the whole arena.”
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