NEW ORLEANS – Knicks center Mitchell Robinson won’t be able to play in his hometown Wednesday at Smoothie King Center.
The former Chalmette High (La.) graduate is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season with a broken foot, and he’ll only be able to watch Knicks-Pelicans from the Big Easy.
The Knicks have carried on nicely without Robinson – partially because new starting center Nerlens Noel has been a rock on the defensive end. He will face a challenge protecting the basket Wednesday from Zion Williamson, however.
Noel is averaging 2.1 blocks per game, good for fourth in the NBA. The Knicks certainly aren’t getting enough scoring from Noel, but Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was willing to go with Noel over new Lakers center Andre Drummond to finish out the season.
And Knicks phenom RJ Barrett, who faces Duke bestie Zion Williamson Wednesday for the first time, acknowledged the Knicks haven’t seen a much of a defensive drop-off because of Noel’s prowess.
Counting his broken hand injury, Robinson has missed 24 of the last 28 games. The Pelicans’ match will be his tenth straight absence.
“First of all, they’re both great,’’ Barrett said. “They’re both great. ‘Nerls’ is a great defender, really protects the rim. They both do. Honestly. And when Mitch is out there Mitch is always catching all the lobs and getting all the putbacks and everything. We definitely miss Mitch. But we love that we love having Nerls.’’
Thibodeau, after the Lakers victory where Drummond was held to three points and four turnovers, praised Noel as the game’s “unsung hero.’’ Noel and Gibson combined for five blocks.
“You can’t measure (Noel) statistically, even though he’s fourth in blocked shots,” Thibodeau said. “The impact in making people miss around the rim. He knows how to clog the rim effectively, defending the pick-and-roll at the top of the key. Just a solid player.”
Noel signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Knicks. Noel thought he was worth more, but there were no bigger offers, and he eventually split with his agent Rick Paul in December.
The former Kentucky product will be a free agent and is having a strong audition. Knicks brass must decide this August whether to extend Robinson’s contract or let him become an unrestricted free agent in 2022. They can give themselves options by bringing back Noel, who is just 27 and a former lottery pick, on a multi-year deal.
The Knicks miss the extra scoring from Robinson on putbacks and alley-oops that the Noel-Taj Gibson tandem doesn’t provide, but they are winning with defense.
“He’s added a lot to our team,’’ Thibodeau said.
Noel could have a shot at some highlight moments Wednesday, as Williamson actually leads the league in getting his shot blocked despite averaging 27 points. Despite that, Williamson is also constantly around the rim finishing in spectacular fashion.
Barrett scoffed at the notion that his 6-foot-7 friend has struggled inside in any way when asked if he got his shot blocked at Duke.
“Only a couple of times I mean, it doesn’t really matter if his shot gets blocked a couple times, he’s scoring a lot in the paint, he’s giving you 30, so I really don’t think it really matters that much,’’ Barrett said.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said last month Williamson had “Shaquille-O’Neal-type force of nature with a point guard skillset.’’
“He’s been able to handle the ball ever since I’ve known him,’’ Barrett said. “It’s great to see him have success and playing as well as he’s playing. It’s gonna be fun to go up against him tonight.’’