Mitchell Robinson’s immediate future is one of many question marks currently hanging over the New York Knicks as he ponders his next move.
After failing to reach an agreement on a contract extension last summer, Robinson will now become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the current season. Unlike a restricted free agent, the Knicks won’t have the right to compete with a contract offer Mitchell accepts, making him a legitimate flying risk in the months to come.
Given Robinson’s potential departure, the Knicks are likely evaluating their options for a cost-controlled replacement. Ideally, each incoming big man is on the current core’s timeline, ready to contribute from the jump, and has plenty of untapped potential.
Enter Jalen Smith, the former Phoenix Suns top 10 draft pick who failed to show his true worth in his first two years in the NBA. Smith was drafted from a Suns team that already had DeAndre Ayton on their roster so his playing time under Monty Williams would always be limited, but showed big man in his 22 appearances for the Indiana Pacers late last season as a sophomore Insights into what it has to offer.
It’s those games for Indiana that should pique the Knicks’ interest should Robinson find a new home. And according to Jonathan Macri of the Knicks Film School newsletter, Smith could be worth a close look at a team-friendly contract next season.
“After a trade to Indiana, Smith got more time and continued to put on a decent number, mostly while playing in the backup center. How much did it mean for a tanking team to arrive late in a losing season? Not everything, however something. Last but not least, Smith has shown that there is still a player worth investing time and energy in here.
Should this team be the Knicks? There are a few ways this could happen. For example, let’s say Mitch goes free, but New York can’t find a home for the demure Nerlens Noel. In that case, the Knicks could have the advantage of taking a risk on an unproven center. If it works, great. If not, Noel is there to lead the position alongside Sims. In the best case, Smith applies and the expiring Noel is cut or dealt at deadline,” Macri wrote.
A modern NBA center is expected to offer rim protection, solid shielding and ideally ground clearance. Rim-runners like Robinson have tremendous value in the league, but their starting center advantage is usually limited as teams rely on spaced attacks to generate lanes for their wings.
Smith came to the NBA with a reputation as a potential big man with ground clearance. During his time at Maryland, Smith averaged 32.3% from deep on 2.5 tries per game over two seasons, but it was his notable jump in conversion rate that got people excited. As a freshman in college, Smith only shot 26.8% from beyond the arc, but that jump jumped to 36.8% in his sophomore year, and it’s that shooting jump that likely tempted the Suns to make a lottery pick on Smith in 2020 to use.
RJ Barrett and Obi Topping are expected to be big contributors to the Knicks’ forward momentum, and both players are best when it’s downhill to the rim. Adding Smith into the equation would ensure opposing defenses are stretched enough to provide additional lanes and kick-out options for the team’s two young goalscorers – assuming Smith is tasked with firing the three-pointer consistently enough to create some gravity.
At 1.80m, Smith is slightly shorter than Robinson but projects to be more mobile which could be an advantage when transitioning to smaller players. When the 22-year-old big man got his chance in Indiana, he was averaging 7.6 rebounds and one block per game in 24.7 minutes of play — so there’s definitely defensive rim protection somewhere beneath the surface.
While Smith could be worth a one-year deal, the likelihood of him becoming a permanent fixture in the Knicks’ future is slim. Top-10 draft picks rarely see their third-year option declined, and that has to be a clear sign of how the Suns view his long-term upside potential.
Ideally, the Knicks’ front office can come to an agreement with Robinson to keep him in New York for the foreseeable future, especially if they can sell him for the rebuilding project the franchise is likely to embark on. As a free agent, however, you can expect the six-foot-tall man to test the waters and see how interested other teams are in his services.
Retaining native talent is always the preferred option in this type of scenario. The player already knows the system, the city and the players, and that kind of continuity is important when building a culture of success. However, should Robinson want a fresh start in a new city, the Smith could be a smart replacement, even if it’s just for a year and taking a closer look at what he’s capable of.