The first domino lining up Mitchell Robinson's long-term future with the Knicks could fall sooner than you think.
Robinson, 21, has already outplayed his contract, a four-year deal so sweet for the Knicks it essentially includes two team options on a miniscule – relatively speaking, of course – NBA salary. (Robinson made $1.4 million last year and will make $1.5 million this year.) But there is a way for Robinson to get paid before he becomes a free agent, and that process could begin next summer.
Either way, Robinson has leverage to dissolve the final year of his team-friendly contract.
Robinson, the Knicks' All-Rookie selection last season and a defensive revelation at center, is eligible next summer for a four-year extension that is maxed at around $53-55 million. Negotiating such a deal, which could be completed as early as July 2020 (or as late as June 2021), would require the Knicks to tear up Robinson's $1.8 million team option for 2021-22.
The Knicks have incentive to lock up Robinson early. If they pick up the cheap team option, Robinson will become an unrestricted free agent in 2022. The Knicks lose his rights because he's a second-round pick.
Conversely – and perhaps more likely – Robinson could decline an extension because money in the open market is more lucrative. The Knicks can make Robinson a restricted free agent by declining his team option for 2021-22, thereby retaining the right to match any offer in the summer of 2021. Either way, the first domino to fall will be the contract extension next summer, and whether it's offered and/or accepted. Both sides have this season, at least, to assess the situation.
For perspective, Josh Richardson and Norman Powell were second-round picks who recently agreed to four-year contract extensions one year before the deadline. Robinson has shown at least as much potential as both those players.
Given the center's trajectory and early production, it's hard to imagine the Knicks want to gamble on unrestricted free agency when he'll be just 24 years old – even if it saves them millions for the 2021-22 season. If it reaches that point, though, one team to keep in mind is the Mavericks. Not only is Dallas closer to Robinson's adopted home in New Orleans, but it's also where Robinson played EYBL ball and trained after dropping out of college to prepare for the NBA draft.
Imagine a Robinson-Kristaps Porzingis frontcourt. Dallas' current centers are Josh Powell and Boban Marjanovic.
Robinson was an unknown heading into the draft after bypassing college and the NBA combine, allowing him to slip to the Knicks with the 36th pick. The last-minute move to skip the combine was orchestrated by agent Raymond Brothers, who also negotiated the team-friendly contract with the Knicks. Brothers was terminated by Robinson soon after the draft.
Robinson since demonstrated that his size (7-foot-1) and hops translates well to the NBA, especially on defense where he led the league in blocks per 48 minutes last season. He has been working on adding the 3-pointer to his repertoire and projects as the starting center this season. Meanwhile, two of New York's top-10 picks of the last two years – Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox – are expected to come off the bench.
Robinson's biggest issue last season was foul trouble, but coach David Fizdale noted improvement at the beginning of training camp.
"Multiple times, guys tried to get him up in the air and he did a great job of staying down on shot fakes and keeping his hands out," Fizdale said. "He's really coming into his own and understanding how he can be effective in the league. Because this is now his second lap and I think he's more comfortable with what he's facing. His strength and his post defense is much better. Early on last year the bigger guys would give him problems because they would back him down. But he's a lot tougher to back down now."