Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz is a transformative, world-beating defensive talent with two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks is coming off one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in recent memory as a two-way force on a rebuilding team.
These two might be at different points in their career, but there is strong evidence to suggest that Robinson is laying the groundwork for a career along the lines of Gobert’s.
Because the Knicks’ sophomore big man certainly doesn’t have the tenure that the Jazz star possesses, we will mostly be comparing each player’s breakout season—Gobert’s second in 2014-15; Robinson’s first in 2018-19.
The reason Gobert’s rookie season was not included is because he only played 434 minutes across 45 games, none of which were starts. It wasn’t until his second season, at age 22, that the Frenchman would truly ingratiate himself with Head Coach Quin Snyder.
While both players are widely renowned for their tremendous defensive gifts, they carve out interesting niches for themselves on offense as well.
Last season, Robinson produced some staggering numbers: According to Basketball Reference, he put forth an insane 140 offensive rating per 100 possessions while only playing 20.6 minutes per game in 1,360 total minutes. That makes him one of only 6 players in NBA history to play over 1,000 minutes and finish the season with an ORating above 135. Those players are Steve Kerr (who did it twice with the Bulls), Tim Legler, Fred Hoiberg, Brandan Wright and Kevon Looney last season. Robinson is also the youngest player in this category at age 20.
That sky-high number is even more impressive when you consider New York’s putrid offense last season, which was 30th out of 30 teams.
Robinson was mostly relying on lob and putback dunks on offense to score, but he was certainly not shy about hunting those shots out, as over 90 percent of his attempts came within zero to three feet of the basket. In the paint, the 20-year-old rookie was a master of his domain, finishing the season with a striking 69.2 true shooting percentage.
Of course, Gobert has a career true shooting percentage of 65 over the course of his seven-year career—80.5 percent of which have come within zero to three feet of the basket, per Basketball Reference.
However, in his breakout campaign, Gobert’s TS% was nearly nine percentage points lower than Robinson’s. Could the latter actually be slightly ahead of Gobert’s learning curve so far?
Despite Robinson’s raw talent in finishing around the basket, Gobert is the more well-rounded offensive player, according to BBall Index’s historical player grades database. Though both players are terrifying pick-and-roll finishers, Gobert graded out with an A (97th percentile) in roll gravity during his breakout year, while Robinson scored an A- (85th percentile)among big men.
Gobert was also a marginally better passer and post player, with a C in playmaking (55th percentile) while Robinson was a lowly D- in the 22nd percentile. Gobert’s footwork and length in his second season was already well-developed—and it’s continued to get better—leading to a B grade (72nd percentile). Robinson, again, lagged behind with a C grade in the 50th percentile.
Though Gobert brought a few more notable skills to the table on offense, Robinson was actually more careful with the ball than the Stifle Tower was: Robinson’s 9.1 percent turnover rate was also 50 percent lower than Gobert’s (18 percent), and Gobert’s 116 assists paled in comparison to the 143 turnovers he committed.
Robinson also did all of this damage on a slightly lower usage than Gobert: 12.1 percent versus 14.
Lastly, according to Cleaning the Glass, Gobert’s points per shot attempt were impressive in 2014-15 at 1.25, which was in the 96th percentile among bigs. However, Robinson blew him out of the water during his rookie campaign with an astounding 1.39, which was in the 99th percentile.
Again, on a far worse team, Robinson was actually a small positive last year for the Knicks on offense. His +0.9 points per 100 possessions was actually fifth on the team. Gobert, on the other hand, was a huge negative on offense during his breakout year, as his -6.9 points per possession would indicate.
While Gobert has curtailed his turnovers in recent years and polished up his capabilities, it does seem as if Robinson was a superior offensive player in this early juncture of each player’s career.
It must be noted that Gobert had a career-best year on offense in 2018-19 by leading the NBA in field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and logging career-highs in points per game, assists per game and a career-best assist to turnover ratio. Clearly, he’s found his niche in a way Robinson must continue aspiring to.
Gobert has won two straight Defensive Player of the Year awards and was the preseason favorite to win a third, while some of Robinson’s earliest Summer League and preseason highlights were centered around using his tremendous speed and length to surprise three-point shooters, blocking their outside shots into the stands.
Robinson produced one of the most staggering defensive rookie campaigns in NBA history last season—one that seemingly fell under the radar for many fans.
According to Basketball Reference, Robinson became one of only three players in NBA history to play more than 1,000 minutes in a rookie season and produce a defensive box plus/minus of better than 5. The other two were Mark Eaton and Manute Bol, who are No. 1 and No. 2 all-time in NBA history in blocks per game, respectively.
Digging in deeper, Robinson produced a stunning block rate of 10 percent during his rookie season, which placed him in singularly elite company. Only three players in NBA history have played more than 1,000 minutes and produced a block rate of 10 percent or higher: Manute Bol (who did it a stunning 5 times) and Alonzo Mourning (who did it at age 35 with the Miami Heat).
Robinson’s youth sets him apart from the crowd. When you expand this list to players that played at least 1,000 minutes and attained a 7 percent or higher block rate, Robinson remains the youngest player to achieve the feat at the tender age of 20. The second-youngest?
None other than Gobert in our chosen season of 2014-15.
The Stifle Tower was a terrifying defensive presence that year, and his -7.0 defensive points per 100 possessions was in the 93rd percentile among big men. The opposing team’s effective field goal percentage fell by 4.4 percentage points when Gobert was on the court, their turnover rate rose by 0.6 percent and their offensive rebound rate fell by 0.5 percent—all showing Gobert’s all-around impact as a rim protector and interior presence on defense.
While Gobert piled up almost 70 more total blocks than Robinson did, most of that can be chalked up to minutes: Gobert played 2,592 and Robinson only played 1,360.
This brings up perhaps the single-biggest advantage that Gobert has over Robinson: Fouling.
Robinson was an absolute foul magnet during his first NBA season, as he piled up a hilarious 5.7 fouls per 36 minutes according to Basketball Reference. (That’s 3.3 per game in 20.6 minutes!) Despite the fact that Robinson played roughly 1,200 fewer minutes than Gobert, he committed only 15 fewer fouls, which is patently absurd.
More than anything, this shows that Robinson is flying all over the place (often wildly) in order to try and affect each and every shot that’s anywhere in his vicinity. Remember, he’s only 20 years old, so it seems reasonable to expect the talented big man to curtail some of those habits as he continues to get comfortable in the NBA.
Gobert, to his credit, has never had much of an issue with over-fouling. His career-high in fouls per game was 3.0 during 2016-17, and he only produced a tiny 2.9 per 36 minutes in his breakout 2014-15 campaign.
Gobert was also superior to Robinson in rebounding. During 2014-15, the 22-year-old Gobert finished 6th in total rebounds (775), and he is 6th among all active players with 10.6 career rebounds per game—most of which are taken on the defensive end, where he employs his length and tremendous defensive smarts to vacuum up boards with ease.
The lowest Gobert has finished in total rebound rate since his breakout season is 11th during 2017-18, in which he put up a still-elite 18.8 percent total rebound rate.
Though Robinson finished with a solid 16.3 percent total rebound rate, he graded out with a D- per BBall Index in defensive rebounding (23rd percentile). Perhaps Robinson’s spindly frame needs to fill out more for him to truly take the requisite punishment in the paint needed for tough boards.
Despite that deficiency, Robinson does best Gobert in BBall Index’s perimeter defense category. While Gobert is schemed in the Jazz’s system as a drop-back big that rarely leaves the paint, Robinson was allowed to freelance on the perimeter in his rookie season, leading to a shockingly good A grade (92nd percentile) among bigs.
Of course, as defensive centers, both players are expected to be elite rim protectors and Gobert does best Robinson in that category. Gobert’s 2014-15 campaign saw him nab a 99th percentile A grade in interior defense, while Robinson lagged slightly behind with an 83rd percentile A- grade.
In the end, it seems that Robinson is on a similar career path as Gobert, but it must be noted that the 27-year-old Frenchman DPOY has continued to work on his game and put forth All-Star-worthy numbers last season. One feather in Robinson’s cap is that he made a huge impact during his first season while also being two years younger than Gobert was in 2014-15.
If Robinson’s rookie campaign is any indication, he has the defensive mindset and physical profile to project as a switchable big man with terrific scoring chops around the basket, all on minuscule usage.
Becoming one of the best rim protectors of all time is not out of the question for Robinson, albeit still a premature expectation. After one season, his floor looks to be an elite two-way center with preternatural shot-blocking instincts and a penchant for finishing around the rim with ease.
Were he to add ranged shooting to his repertoire (something Gobert has not been able to do yet either), Robinson truly would become one of the league’s most dangerous fives. For now, both are active “short-range” weapons around the rim on either end.
Teams can only roster so many of those these days, but there still is a place for guys like Robinson and Gobert, albeit with the right teammates stretching the floor around them.
With a 10.2 percent block rate, 1.5 points per shot attempt (per Cleaning the Glass) and a sterling 7.8 box plus/minus, Robinson’s early returns in the 2019-20 season are good. But on an absolutely listless Knicks squad with seemingly infinite power forwards, he is only playing a measly 17.6 minutes per game.
Expect that number to rise as he attempts to live up to his billing as the next Rudy Gobert.
Chris Guest is a writer for ClutchPoints and FanSided based out of the cursed sports city of Atlanta. A Pokémon master and beer connoisseur, Chris enjoys bad movies more than your average bloke.