Mitchell Robinson returns to practice in massive Knicks injury surprise

DENVER — Out for more than three months following ankle surgery, Mitchell Robinson returned to full practice Wednesday but “has got to go through contact for a while” before returning to play, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.

It was an encouraging update after 47 missed games and a long stretch of uncertainty surrounding Robinson’s injury — which included concerns he would miss the season — and Thibodeau called Wednesday “a good day” for the 25-year-old.

Robinson had previously been working on the court but was not cleared for contact.

Mitchell Robinson returned to Knicks practice on Wednesday in Denver. Charles Wenzelberg/NY Post

“It wasn’t an extended [practice], obviously. But he did shooting. He did offense, defense, script,” Thibodeau said.

Asked if there’s a timeline for his return to games, Thibodeau said, “He’s got to go through contact for a while. So then he’s got to get cleared by the doctor.”

Though Thibodeau wouldn’t commit to a rotation when Robinson returns, the coach indicated he would keep Isaiah Hartenstein as the starter.

Either way, Thibodeau said he would stagger the minutes so that regular starters get time on the court with Robinson.

Hartenstein has been navigating a sore Achilles and is under a minutes restriction.

Mitchell Robinson may come off the Knicks’ bench when he returns. Charles Wenzelberg/NY Post

“With Isaiah’s minutes restriction … [Robinson is] going to play with both units,” Thibodeau said. “Again, once you get to the fourth quarter, you’re looking at, what do we need to win the game? That’s where we make our decisions.”

Twenty-one games into the season, Robinson was diagnosed with a stress fracture to his left ankle and underwent surgery in early December, the Knicks said.

The Knicks then applied for a Disabled Players Exception, which is only used for season-ending injuries. It cast doubt on Robinson returning.

But the NBA rejected New York’s application, and Robinson began the long recovery process.

Assuming he’s out of Thursday night’s game in Denver, Robinson has just 13 games and a little more than three weeks remaining in the regular season. The playoffs begin April 20.

Before the injury, Robinson was among the top rebounders in the NBA while building a case for an All-Defense selection.

Then Hartenstein stepped up, and the Knicks actually had a better winning percentage and a better net rating following the surgery, at least partially due to the arrival of OG Anunoby from Toronto.

Robinson, who is averaging 6.2 points and 10.3 rebounds this season, was leading the NBA in offensive boards before the absence.

Hartenstein is also a bruiser in the middle but brings a different dynamic as a playmaker.

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“Well, there’s obviously going to be a lot of mixing and matching,” Thibodeau said. “So it’s not like it’s going to be all bench guys with no starters. There’s usually going to be two starters out there. I think both guys — we did it quite a bit last year, mixing and matching, one guy would finish one game. The next time it would be somebody else, depending on what we needed. We know all the things that Mitch adds to the team. It’ll be great to get him back.

“We’re obviously very pleased with what Isaiah has brought. You throw in Precious [Achiuwa] and Jericho [Sims] has done a good job. We like the depth that we have at that position. That’s been a big plus for us.”

Two seasons ago, Robinson returned from right foot surgery and said conditioning was an issue, partly because he bulked up with weight training.

Mitchell’s return will mean having to figure out how to share minutes with Isaiah Hartenstein. Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

For this rehab, Thibodeau said Robinson watched his weight.

“You’re always concerned when you can’t do a lot of cardio. He did all he could,” Thibodeau said. “He was in the pool all the time. You’re always concerned about a big gaining of weight because of the lack of cardio. But he did a good job of monitoring his weight. So that’s a big plus. And now once he’s cleared, just keep building. We’ll keep adding each day and see how he feels the next day. You never know until tomorrow — how he feels. So that’s a big part of this.”

Robinson hasn’t spoken to the media since his surgery, and wasn’t available Wednesday, but Jalen Brunson confirmed his teammate was back in practice.

“It looked and sounded like Mitch,” Brunson said. “It’s not an imposter.”

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