The Knicks reconvened at their Tarrytown facility Tuesday for the first practice of training camp, but rehabbing center Mitchell Robinson mostly worked out individually and away from his teammates.
For all of the optimism over adding hometown star Kemba Walker and free-agent swingman Evan Fournier to the Knicks’ first playoff team in eight seasons, the organization continues to proceed cautiously as Robinson works his way back into the rotation after he was limited to 31 appearances last season due to a broken hand and a broken foot.
“He’s doing what he can. He does some parts [of practice], but we’re going to take it slowly with him,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after practice. “But it was a good first day, gives us a baseline, shows us exactly where we are and shows us all the things that we have to work on to improve.”
The eventual return of the athletic 7-foot Robinson from March foot surgery certainly will help the Knicks’ interior defense. The 23-year-old center owns a .705 career shooting percentage while averaging 2.1 blocked shots per game over his first three NBA seasons, but team president Leon Rose said last week that his return remains “a work in progress.”
“It’s encouraging, because each day he is doing more and more. And he feels really good, which I think is important,” said Thibodeau, noting that Robinson has bulked up over the summer. “You guys can see the physical difference. He’s done a lot of strength training. He’s handled that as well as you can handle it.
“I think sometimes when you have some time off like that, you can take a step back and get a broader view of everything. I think he has a good understanding of how important practice preparation is, and just observing the playoffs last year. … So what he brings to our team is unique and his contribution to the team is very important.”
Veteran big men Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson were retained in the offseason and again will provide cover — and rim protection — until Robinson can ramp up his activity.
The Knicks added Noel before last season on a one-year contract worth $5 million, but they committed to him long term this summer with a three-year deal for $27.7 million.
“It was the best free agency I’ve ever experienced,” Noel said. “It feels great. It’s a sense of [relief] coming into this, knowing my role, knowing the expectations I have for myself giving to this team. I think it makes a large difference. I’m able to sit back and understand day by day knowing I can help the young guys.
“Like every other year, [it’s the] same expectation, trying to go hard and get it out like I’m still on a one-year [contract], really. But it’s a little different, the [comfort] aspect. I’m able to do some things. Trying to expand on my game a little bit [but] staying in the team confinement.”
The 27-year-old Noel said he worked all summer on adding a 3-point shot to his game, but his primary role still will be to set screens, rebound and contribute to the defensive identity of Thibodeau’s team. The Kentucky product finished third in the NBA with 2.2 blocks per game over 64 appearances last season.
“Exactly that. Especially having a head coach like Coach Thibs and the guys, players, it makes it that much easier to fall into the season just with a simple, focused mindset picking up from last year, especially the successes that we had and trying to add onto that, being a part of it,” Noel said. “I’m ecstatic about it. Continue to take it day by day with the young guys. Try to make sure we have the right foundation to carry us through all year.”