The Knicks didn’t miss a beat Saturday with Nerlens Noel playing 33 minutes as their new starting center as Mitchell Robinson sat on the sidelines in a white shirt and white cast.
Noel has quietly served as Robinson’s serviceable backup, notching two blocks a game, which ranked fifth in the NBA entering Sunday. Now the spotlight is fully on the free agent the Knicks signed to a one-year, $5 million deal in November.
Robinson, who had started the previous 27 games, is out at least six weeks with a fractured right hand that may need surgery.
“They know I’m ready,” Noel said after his first Knicks start resulted in 10 points, six rebounds, two blocks in a 121-99 rout of the Rockets. “Once that task comes, I’ll be ready to go. Mitchell is a big piece on this team, everything he brings to the table. I hope he has a speedy recovery. Until then, I’ll definitely man the defense, man the paint. Just make sure I’m playing at a high level for this team.”
Noel, another of the Knicks’ Kentucky guys, has not lived up to his draft status as the sixth pick in the 2013 draft — when Giannis Antetokounmpo was selected 15th by the Bucks.
Noel weaved two decent seasons with Oklahoma City as a defensive-minded center, but he couldn’t net a multiyear deal during free agency. He still is only 26.
In the preseason, Noel was the Knicks starting center, but Robinson beat him out when the games began for real.
When Robinson crashed his hand against Julius Randle’s elbow in Washington on Friday, trepidation mounted that the Knicks could be at a severe disadvantage as they look to stay in the playoff race. They are 13-15, entering Sunday in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, with Atlanta on tap at the Garden on Monday.
Noel had missed five games with periodic knee soreness but sources say it is not a serious injury.
“I don’t know why I wouldn’t be [ready for the extra minutes],” Noel said. “I felt great [Saturday.] I think it’s obviously the most minutes of the season, but I feel fresher than ever. So I definitely can’t wait to really get this thing going, string these games along and really leave my stamp on each game to really complement my teammates and open things up, not only on the defensive end, but the offensive end, pick and rolls, and just up at the rim, rim reads, and making the right plays. I’m very excited for what’s to come.”
Noel said he feels he’s been undervalued. He split from super-agent Rich Paul in December and hired Chris Gaston. Noel has a huge chance to play his way into a contract he feels he deserves.
“I felt great out there being with the starting lineup,” Noel said. “I got comfortable pretty fast. Guys played the right way [Saturday]. We’ve been doing that pretty much all season. I took it upon myself to be the veteran of the team and step up to the task. I’ll take it up a notch for these next — whatever starts I get through this time. I definitely want to play my game.”
When the Knicks signed Noel, they thought he had a real shot at being their starting center because of Robinson’s maturity issues. Robinson, however, showed progress in that department.
“I loved him,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who coached Noel at Oklahoma City the previous two seasons. “I recruited him coming out of high school [at Florida]. He’s a terrific teammate and love the way he plays the game with great shot-blocking ability. He sees the floor well for a big guy. He was great for us at OKC. He gave us an incredible two years there — all about the team.”
On Saturday, Noel and Randle executed an early pick-and-roll ending with a Noel finish at the rim. RJ Barrett found Noel for two first-half alley-oops — a Robinson staple.
Taj Gibson, an old Tom Thibodeau favorite in Chicago and Minnesota, logged 15 minutes, scoring four points and — most importantly — registering a plus-15 as Noel’s backup Saturday.
It’s fluid, but the Knicks aren’t in a rush to scour the market for a big man, even though they can make room by waiving either forward Ignas Brazdeikis, who’s playing in the G-League, or point guard Jared Harper, who’s on a two-way deal. Theo Pinson seems safe as a Leon Rose favorite.
Gibson spent his first eight games of his second Knicks stint without getting in a game.
“Taj has been a starter, he’s been a bench guy,” Thibodeau said. “The one thing I do know about him is his professionalism and his readiness to play. He can sit there and not be playing, but he’ll be ready to go and that adds a lot of value to the team.”