Nylon Calculus: How does Mitchell Robinson block so many jumpers?

Just two years into his career, Mitchell Robinson looks like a special shot-blocker. But his ability to block jumpers is more than just special.

In the past two seasons, the Knicks have cycled through numerous former first-round picks looking for a franchise cornerstone. Frank Nitlikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and R.J. Barrett were all top-10 picks with two or fewer seasons of experience under their belt. Each had their moments but Mitchell Robinson was, by far, the most effective of the bench and could turn out to be the most important player for the Knicks’ future.

His minutes and role are still constrained but Mitchell was impressive in the rim-protector, vertical spacer role, leading the league in field goal percentage and posting a block percentage of 8.0. As the Knicks continue building out this roster he looks like a defensive centerpiece and one aspect of his shot-blocking hints at just how special he is.

What makes Mitchell Robinson such a special shot-blocker?

Last season, in just over 1400 minutes, Robinson blocked 16 3-point attempts, second-most in the league and more than 11 entire teams managed. And that was actually a slight decline from his rookie season when he blocked 24 3-point attempts in about the same number of minutes. Those numbers may seem small to the point of insignificance, 40 blocks across two seasons, but they are an unbelievable outlier, especially when you factor in his blocks on long 2-point jumpers (another 18 over the past two seasons).

Scale those numbers to per 100 possessions and open the sample up to the top 500 players in minutes played over the past five seasons and there is no one even remotely close to Robinson.

Simple addition tells us that inside or outside the arc, Robinson has blocked just over one long jumper per 100 possessions. That’s nearly twice as often as any other player in the sample. You can see from the clips below that his blocks on jumpers come in a variety of settings.

The common element in all of those blocks is obviously shooters underestimating how much time they have to get their shots off. But Robinson just covers an unbelievable amount of ground. Look at how much distance he needs to cover to get the block when Thabo Sefolosha catches the ball in that first clip.

This block is primarily a product of his quickness, length and leaping ability, but you also have to credit Robinson’s instincts. He can make hard shows and hedges in the pick-and-roll because he can change directions in an instant and chew up empty space.

Check out how far Robinson is from Grant Williams in the corner when Kemba Walker makes his pass, the last shot he blocked in the video clips above.

The ability to crash down on dribble penetration, deter a shot and then still recover is an incredible advantage and for all his relative inexperience and the shaky defenders around him, the Knicks’ defense was still better by 3.1 points per 100 possessions when Robinson was on the floor.

The real value in his ability to cover ground will ultimately be in deterrence, not just the shots he blocks at the rim or out to the 3-point arc. If shooters are aware of Robinson’s presence and hesitating to pull the trigger on jumpers that appear to be open, it can really grind the gears of an offense. We can start to see the outlines of this effect in the work of Andrew Patton on Regularized Adjusted Deterrence (RAD). This metric, in which Robinson ranked in the 95th percentile last season, measures how a defender’s presence the game affects an opponent’s shot selection, reducing attempts from high-value areas. You can see Robinson’s map below.

It’s likely that over the next few years Robinson’s block numbers, particularly on jumpers, begin to decline as opposing shooters become more aware of him and are more reluctant to shoot when he’s lurking. Robinson will also probably need to adapt as shooters begin to leverage his perimeter block-hunting with pump-fakes to get him in the air and then attack the closeout off the dribble.

Shot deterrence is not the only variable for defensive impact and Robinson has plenty of other skills he’ll need to add and develop to round out his profile. But even if his historic perimeter block numbers go down, he’s well on his way to being a special defensive player.