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Jarrett Allen or Mitchell Robinson: Who’s the ‘Paint King’ of New York?

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The Nets and Knicks aren’t just rivals. They’re competing for top free agents and one of the Knicks’ big selling points is that Mitchell Robinson is a future building block. But as our Chris Milhollen writes, Robinson is at this point the second best 21-year-old center in New York!

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets and the Knicks had two completely different seasons in 2018-19. The Nets exceeded all expectations and made the playoffs for the first time since 2015 as a sixth seed. Meanwhile, the Knicks finished the regular season with the league-worst record of 17-65 and are waiting till May 14 to see whether they’ll have the chance to get Zion Williamson.

Yes, both teams have big expectations heading into free agency this summer to land at least one big market free agent and are two of the youngest teams in the NBA. They have one other thing in common as well: Both believe they have their cornerstone centers, hyper athletic shot-blockers: Jarrett Allen for Brooklyn and Mitchell Robinson for New York. Moreover, both are very young, just turned 21. Allen is three weeks younger than Robinson.

Allen was picked with the 22nd pick in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Nets. Coming into the draft, Allen was expected to be someone who would need at least a year to develop, especially on the defensive end, due to his lack of strength. But even before the Draft, Allen exhibited some unique skills, as this ESPN Sports Science segment showed.

ESPN, in fact, compared Allen’s defensive range to that of Rudy Gobert. The Jazz center, who was drafted 27th overall in 2013, did not have a good rookie season averaging less than 3.0 points per game but today is an All-Star caliber center ... and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

ESPN wasn’t alone. In March of this year, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters that he wants his big man to emulate Gobert. Atkinson praised Gobert calling him one of the pillars of this league.

That’s a heady comparison — and motivation (but Atkinson has also suggested Allen has a bit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in him!)

It did not take long for Allen to make a household name for himself, at least in Brooklyn. Besides his vintage afro hairstyle, the Nets big man became the starting center halfway through his rookie season, starting 31 out of the 72 games he played in. Allen finished his rookie season averaging 20.0 minutes, 8.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game. Not bad for a 19-year-old rookie center.

Heading into Year 2, Brooklyn had expectations he could build on his bright rookie season and prove he is a cornerstone center for this young Nets team. Well, the Nets big man proved he’s one of the best young centers in the league.

Allen put together quite the shot blocking resume in Year 2. The 21 year-old center has become a fearless rim protector and averaged 1.5 blocks per game, good for 12th in the league. And YES announcers talked about “the list,” filled with names of bigs who had stopped cold in the paint.

The Nets center’s superstar block resume began in October when he met Blake Griffin at the rim and gave him one powerful rejection.

Then came arguably the Block of the Year. The Nets center made headlines across the NBA when he met LeBron James at the rim. Allen became only the ninth player to block a dunk attempt by James in his 14-year career.

Allen talked about the block on the King following the game. For him, he lives up to the childhood chatter of swatting the King.

”That’s a hell of a list to be on,” Allen says. “Growing up ... everyone would say, ‘Are you going to jump when LeBron’s coming at you?’ I was like 13 years old [at the time]. That’s the opportunity right there.”

Only 11 days later when you thought Allen couldn’t match his rejection on the King, he did what most call a once in a blue moon block. The Nets center met Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim for a thunderous rejection silencing the Fiserv Forum crowd.

Then, in the first Nets game of 2019, Allen blocked Anthony Davis not once but twice in the game in front of the Barclays Center crowd.

Finally, there was the reigning NBA MVP, James Harden, who came driving down the lane looking for a halftime buzzer beater. Allen met the beard at the rim.

Allen knows when going up to contest a block that either he will be the highlight or he will be on the highlight.

”Either way, you’re going to be on the highlight [when you try to block a dunk],” Allen says. “If you go up and block it, you’ll be on the highlight. If you go up and get dunked on, you’ll be on the highlight. Just go up and protect the rim.”

The Nets big man is no showboater —no finger wagging— and he’s nowhere near vocal regarding his star moments on the court. In his eyes, he is just doing his job protecting the rim.

“That’s what I’m here for,” Allen said. “That’s what I want to help my team with. So I’m not really super ecstatic about it. I mean, I’m happy about it, but I’m not gonna like jump out of my seat or whatever.”

Atkinson and the Nets value his confidence to get up and make those big time blocks. The Nets coach said it best.

”There’s no bravado,” Atkinson says of Allen. “He’s not Dikembe [Mutombo, wagging his finger]. His personality is such that he doesn’t take [getting dunked on] personally and he goes back at it again.”

Clearly, Allen has put himself in the conversation for being one of the league’s best shot blockers. This season, the Nets center was ranked 11th among centers in the league in blocks per game (1.50) and 12th among all players. He recorded 120 total blocks in the 2018-19 season.

Allen also already ranks 12th among the Nets franchise leaders in total blocked shots with 208 career blocks. (The Nets franchise leader in blocked shots is Brook Lopez, who had 972 blocks in nine seasons. )

He is also a bargain because he was taken so low in the Draft. The Nets center is under contract up through the 2020-21 season and will be making $2,376,840 next season. He can be extended next summer with a new and presumably much bigger deal starting in 2020-21.

Ed Davis, his fellow big teammate thinks Allen can be among the highest paid centers down the line.

”He’s in that elite category,” Davis said during the season. ”I think he’s a $100 million player. I don’t just throw that out there and say that about anybody. He’s got all the tools, he’s got the work ethic. Everything is going to fall in place.”

“To be honest with you, Jarrett Allen is probably the key to this franchise moving forward,” Dudley told reporters. “He’s the key ‘cause he’s the foundation. He blocks the shots, he’s (catching) the drop-offs and so he’s the one that’s going to give you 18 points without even calling a play in his level.”

“I agree with Jared (Dudley),” said Kenny Atkinson in his end-of-season press conference. “I think it’s one of our priorities this off-season. Keep him on a improving plane. I was really impressed with how he improved during the playoffs alone from Game 1 to Game 5e and how he just kept getting better. His rebounding improved this year but he’s a key cog and still 21.

“I think in our exit meetings yesterday we talked to him about the things he wanted to work on. I expect him to listen, and in two-three years, to be an elite center in this league. He’s going in that direction. I’m really thrilled with his development so far.”

Allen is not just getting those type of compliments from his teammates and head coach. One Eastern Conference representative thinks he can be one the elite big men in years to come.

”He can certainly be in that class of big men,” one Eastern Conference executive said.

With all being said, Allen has proved to the Nets organization that he should be a cornerstone player for years to come. Despite being a cornerstone caliber player, Allen has some work to do not only on his game but on his physical size. He will need to build more muscle, which was his main goal last offseason.

Although he’s been a big shotblocker, Allen has been out-muscled his first two years in the NBA. The Nets were beat up in the paint this past season, with supersized centers such as Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Andre Drummond taking advantage of him. It’s something he and the coaching staff recognize.

Then, there is Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks center. Robinson had a different path to the NBA than Allen. The 7-foot-1 center was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules at Western Kentucky University after only practicing with the team for two weeks. Robinson was then granted a release so he could transfer but he would have to sit out the 2017-18 season. He decided to sit out all last year, working out on his own. It was a big risk.

This left NBA scouts with little to work with, other than his high school career at Chalmette High School in Louisiana. But in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Knicks decided to use their second round pick, 36th overall, and took the risk.

During the 2018 NBA Summer League, Robinson did not just play well, he broke records. He set the summer league record for blocked shots and offensive rebounds. Only six days into the summer league, the Knicks inked the big man to a four-year, $6.5 million contract with a variety of protections for the team. In preseason, Robinson suffered an ankle injury sidelining him till October 17, when he made his NBA debut scoring 2 points in less than two minutes of play.

Robinson had a great rookie season considering where he was taken in the Draft. The Knicks big man started 19 of the 66 games he played in and averaged 20.6 minutes, 7.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game.

He became immensely popular among New York fans due to his defense and his startling athleticism. Robinson established himself as one of the most exciting shot blockers in the NBA. In fact, he was second in the league this season in blocks per game, only trailing Indiana Pacers big man Myles Turner, who averaged 2.6 blocks per game.

On top of being second in blocks per game in the NBA, Robinson became the first rookie in NBA history to average 2.4+ blocks and shoot 60% from the field. His 2.4 blocks per game was the highest average for a rookie since Tim Duncan, who averaged 2.51. The rookie center also broke Patrick Ewing’s all-time Knicks rookie record for consecutive games with at least one blocked shot in 29 consecutive games.

The 21 year-old center also broke the Knicks rookie block record, which was held by Kristaps Porzingis, who had 134 blocks as a rookie.

David Fizdale went on ESPN’s The Jump on Monday and praised his 21 year-old center and admitted he was surprised by his play in his historic rookie season.

“Another thing that surprised a lot of people was this kid Mitchell Robinson,” Fizdale said. “I don’t think anyone anticipated him coming out of the woodworks, this kid did not play last year, 20 years old, Scott Perry and his staff did a heck of a job picking him out at at 36 and this kid is second in the league blocks this year and his dumb coach was only playing him about 19 minutes per game. When we get those minutes up some more, we’re looking at a potential Defensive Player of the Year and I think that was a real surprise for everybody.”

Robinson in fact surpassed the Knicks lottery pick, Kevin Knox, as the top young player on the Knicks, a lure for free agents.

Perhaps because he played fewer minutes, Robinson didn’t the “celebrity” blocks Allen accumulated, but he had his moments, like this sequence against the Magic’s Aaron Gordon where he twice blocked the Orlando big.

He also blocked Dwyane Wade quite neatly in late March.

Then, there was his monster nine-block extravaganza back in November

Now, lets compare the two young centers. Allen has shown he is a better all-around center than Robinson. Allen is more developed on the offensive end than the Knicks rookie. The Nets center is also a more consistent rebounder than Robinson. The Knicks center is statistically a better offensive rebounder than Allen, but not by any big margin.

Allen and Robinson have near identical playing styles on the court at the center position. Both players are traditional centers, who keep their offense inside the arc. But Allen has at this point, the more sophisticated game. He is not limited to putbacks and alley-oops.

For example, the Nets have had Allen work on his three point shot throughout the season. The Nets center attempted 45 three’s this season and hit six of them. In his rookie season, Allen attempted 15 and made five. Allen said in his exit interview that three point shooting and strength will be his top summer league goals.

Robinson, on the other hand, has yet to attempt a three in the NBA. He claims developing a three will be a top off-season priority. “I’m going to take shots,” he said. “Work on my jump shot because I see when I go back to look at film, I see guys play off of me.”

In the first meeting between the two, Allen welcomed the rookie with a emphatic poster in front of the Madison Square Garden crowd. (But on the following possession, Noah Vonleh caught Allen on a poster.)

In their rookie seasons, Allen recorded 144 offensive rebounds and 388 total rebounds in 72 games, Robinson had 177 offensive rebounds and 423 total rebounds in 66 games. This year, the Nets center improved to 191 offensive rebounds and 672 total rebounds in 80 games.

As for blocks, Allen had 120 this season in 80 games (up from 88 his rookie year), while Robinson had 161 blocks in 66 rookie season games. But in terms of who blocked who, Allen has the bragging rights. Allen finished seventh in the league in dunks with 170, Robinson 17th with 127.

Moreover, Robinson is much more foul-prone than his Nets counterpart. Robinson averaged 5.8 personals per 36 minutes this season, compared to 3.2 for Allen. It’s a measure of how much more sophisticated Allen’s defensive game is, shot blocking stats aside.

Given the roles each center have on their team, Allen has a bigger role with the Nets than Robinson has with the Knicks. The Nets center started all 80 games he played in and was one of the Nets most consistent players on both ends of the floor. Enes Kanter held the Knicks starting center job for a majority of the season before being waived and signing with the Blazers. With Kanter leaving, Robinson got more minutes and consistent starts with New York. (Before Kanter left, Robinson didn’t have a single month where he averaged 20 minutes. In April. he averaged 32.

And despite having a year of NBA experience on Robinson, Allen is 20 days younger.

With both centers being only 21 years old, it is a toss up of who will have the better career in years to come. Allen and Robinson have established themselves as key players for their franchises for years to come and are both under contract for some time.