PHOENIX — Mitchell Robinson rejoined the Knicks on the practice court Friday in San Francisco, and was listed as questionable Saturday. That significant step led coach Tom Thibodeau to believe the team’s starting center is “a lot closer” to returning from the knee injury that has sidelined him for the past eight games.
That improvement could spell an eventual return to a reduced role for Jericho Sims, but the second-year big man has shown his value when pressed into duty since Robinson was injured. That included Sims’ second double-double in three games, on Friday during a five-city road trip that will continue Sunday afternoon against the Suns.
The 24-year-old Sims finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots in 27 minutes off the bench in the Knicks’ 111-101 loss to the Warriors.
“You hear all the time coaches saying ‘stay ready,’ and that’s all I’ve really been doing. The time will come that you’ll get more time,” Sims said Friday in San Francisco. “I’m sure [Robinson] is gonna come back and play, but I’ll be there whenever they need me.”
Robinson, who signed a four-year deal worth $60 million in July, hasn’t played since he sprained his right knee on Nov. 4 in Philadelphia. The Knicks have missed the 7-footer’s inside presence at both ends of the court, but they were 4-4 with him in the lineup and have gone 4-4 without him.
Sims has started two of those eight contests, with backup Isaiah Hartenstein getting the nod in the other six games of Robinson’s absence. Thibodeau also has experimented with a smaller frontcourt alignment — with Julius Randle at center and Obi Toppin at power forward — for stretches of those games.
But the 6-9 Sims, the Knicks’ second-round pick (58th overall) out of Texas in 2021, has impressed the coaching staff with averages of 6.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots over the past eight games.
“Yeah, the athleticism, great feet. Gives you the opportunity to switch more [on the defensive end],” Thibodeau said of Sims. “Offensively, the pressure on the rim. Very good playmaker on short rolls. We still haven’t seen it in the games, but we’ve seen it in practice. He’s got a real good feel for it.”
Sims credited his footwork and ability to guard smaller players to manning other positions while growing up in Minnesota. He received his first start of the season earlier this month in Minneapolis against the Timberwolves, with his parents and other family members in attendance. He said a growth spurt in high school led him to switch to center, before playing behind and learning from fellow NBA big men Mo Bamba and Jaxson Hayes at Texas.
Sims even stepped out to guard Nuggets guard Jamal Murray late in the Knicks’ win at Denver this past Wednesday.
“I’ve always felt comfortable stepping out on smaller guards and playing good defense, by sliding my feet and moving my feet,” Sims said. “I’m sure if [opposing players] don’t know me, they really aren’t expecting me to do that.”
Sims also admitted it took him a few games in the rotation to find his rhythm after he played a total of just eight minutes over the Knicks’ first eight games.
“For sure, because you’ve got to get your wind, got to get your reps in, and that’s really it, the game reps are the most important,” Sims said. “That’s really where I’m getting my wind and my cardio in.”
Sims has helped the Knicks stay up to speed, with two wins in the first three games of this trip, including his first double-double (11 points and 13 boards) in the win Tuesday at Utah.
The Knicks need to win one of the next two games — at the Suns and at the Thunder on Monday — to return to New York with a winning record on the road trip.
“We still got a chance to make it a great trip,” Randle said after the loss to the Warriors. “We’ve got two more games, two more very winnable games. We’ve got a chance to make it a great trip and go back home feeling pretty good about ourselves.”
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