Nerlens Noel vs Mitchell Robinson: Who should the Knicks start at center?

Nerlens Noel dunk
Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson are battling for the starting center spot. Photo from New York Post.

Tom Thibodeau and the New York Knicks have a big problem on their hands right now: Nerlens Noel vs Mitchell Robinson, who to start at center?

The Knicks are coming off an impressive season in which they looked like overachievers more often than not. Their tough, physical defense and grittiness were the key to take a struggling franchise back from the ground and to playoff contention.

But, in the end, they couldn’t overcome their lack of shooting and playmaking, falling short in the first round of the playoffs. Now, after adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, the New York Knicks rotation 2021/22 looks pretty solid.

Nerlens Noel vs Mitchell Robinson: Who should be the Knicks’ starting center?

That being said, coach Thibodeau still needs to sort things out when it comes to the man in the middle: Noel vs Robinson.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of starting Nerlens Noel over Mitchell Robinson and vice-versa, breaking down who should the Knicks starting center be for the upcoming season:

Comparing the Knicks’ center options

If you asked this question a year ago, people would’ve thought you’re crazy or simply don’t know basketball. But right now, Mitchell Robinson’s superiority over Nerlens Noel isn’t as clear as it used to be.

For starters, their per-36 mins averages aren’t that far off. Robinson averaged 10.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, and 1.5 steals with 3.6 fouls over 36 minutes. Noel averaged 7.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 3.3 blocks, and 4.1 fouls per 36.


It’s not a secret that Robinson has an edge as an offensive player over Noel. He’s got better hands and has even added some range to his offensive repertoire. Noel, on the other hand, does most of his damage on put-backs and above the rim. As for free-throw shooting, Noel is much better at 65% compared to Robinson’s 56%.

Nerlens Noel is the better shot-blocker of the two. He averages 2.2 blocks per game on 24.2 minutes. Robinson swats 1.5 shots per game on 27.5 minutes of action. And, even though the eye test doesn’t show that Noel is a superior defender than Robinson, advanced stats say so.

Noel logged an NBA-best 3.5 defensive box plus-minus, with a 1.0 net box-plus minus and 1.2 Value Over Replacement in 2020-21. Also, he accounted for 5.2 win shares and the Knicks had a defensive rating of 101 when he was on the court.

The Knicks fared better offensively with Robinson at the five, logging an offensive rating of 134 and a defensive rating of 104. Then again, his defensive box plus-minus was slightly worse than Noels’ at 1.1. He got a Value Over Replacement of 0.6 and just 3.4 win shares.

In reality, it doesn’t seem like Tom Thibodeau could go wrong either way. It will all depend on the personnel around the Knicks starting center and matchups rather than who’s a better option.

Noel vs Robinson: Verdict

Robinson is a better scorer, playmaker, screener, and ball-handler than Noel.

Nerlens, on the other hand, is a much better and more versatile defender, a better rim protector, and a guy who’s laterally quick enough to stay in front of perimeter players.

Truth be told, the biggest issue for both of these players will be staying healthy, as they’ve both been quite injury-prone throughout their careers. Also, Robinson needs to prove to the Knicks that he’s worthy of a big pay-day as he looks to sign a big extension next season.

The Knicks’ defense was pretty solid for most of last year, whereas their offense struggled from time to time. So, for now, maybe they would be better off by giving Mitchell Robinson the nod. Maybe having some tough competition off the bench will bring the best out of him.

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