Isaiah Hartenstein Is New York’s Big Dog Now
12:47 PM EST on January 11, 2024
Back in 2020, the editorial leadership of this site felt comfortable referring to Isaiah Hartenstein as a "big lug" and lumping him in with sundry "NBA Doofuses." If only we'd been offered a prophetic glimpse of the 25-year-old version of Hartenstein now—leading the brave New York Knicks into a resplendent future as a do-everything center—then maybe we would've taken back those loose words. In fairness, most healthy folks at that time were not thinking all that hard about the German-American center who was selected with the 43rd pick in 2017. Even if you had developed any opinions on him during his reserve stints with the Rockets, Nuggets, Cavs, Clippers, or Knicks, those opinions now require an urgent update. Because "some dude" named Hartenstein—as the city's loudest and fakest Knicks fan put it—is balling in an unprecedented fashion.
After starting just 14 games across his previous five seasons, Hartenstein has held down the gig for the last 11 games, and played so well one has to wonder why he'd ever been the understudy at all. In his last five games—for context, these are the games played after a very fruitful Knicks trade with the Raptors to acquire wing terror OG Anunoby—Hartenstein has averaged 9.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.4 steals, and 2.6 blocks, while shooting 70 percent from the floor. Maybe he will slink back down to earth some day, but in the mean time, the Knicks simply will enjoy one of the best offensive rebounders, rim protectors, screeners, and playmakers at the center position, all for $9.2 million. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau must be wondering which occult rites granted him the reincarnation of Joakim Noah.
As with most tales of breakout from the bench, Hartenstein's joy was made possible by his pal's pain. Until its ruinous final weeks, 2023 had been the year of self-actualization for Mitchell Robinson, who got serious and ascended into a playoff-worthy defensive anchor. While earlier seasons had been pocked with injury, conditioning issues, and dissatisfaction about his offensive role, the 2023 playoffs saw Robinson keep his game simple and brutal. Throughout the first-round series against the Cavs, he comprehensively out-beefed Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, reigning over the paint and glass. Robinson carried that momentum into the fall, rebounding with new vigor and lining himself up for his first-ever All-Defensive Team, until he was laid low in game 21 by a stress fracture in his left ankle that required surgery. The team applied for a disabled player exception, meaning if league doctors found the injury was severe enough to rule him out through the end of the postseason, they'd get some wiggle room to find his replacement.
In the meantime, the Knicks were left with the other half of their center tandem. I am biased, but Hartenstein and Robinson were my favorite center rotation in the league: reasonable contracts, with overlapping but distinct skillsets, guaranteeing 48 minutes of high-quality big-man play every night. I'd often wondered if Robinson's edge over Hartenstein on defense was smaller than Hartenstein's edge over Robinson on offense, but I figured that Thibodeau was seeing something that I wasn't.
I don't know what Thibs saw, but this much is certain: His mulishness with rotations meant Hartenstein's only path to serious minutes was catastrophic injury to Robinson. And then that came to pass, Hartenstein got his unlikely chance, and the floor opened up gorgeously for the Knicks. He embraced Robinson's grimy duties of screening, shot-blocking, and rebounding (in the last week alone, he's hauled in 19 and 20 boards).
In between the familiar brawn and bully-ball were new layers of feel and craft. Where Robinson's offensive diet is limited to dump-offs and put-backs, Hartenstein—who, like so many young bigs, was steeped in guard skills by a prescient hooper dad—can cook with the ball in his hands. From the perimeter, he likes to run handoffs or reward cutters with a saucy pass, managing to space the floor without a viable three ball. He can roll hard to the rim or stop short to flick in a floater; unlike Robinson, he can even take a few probing dribbles before deciding on a course of action. So it's hard to discern what the Knicks lost in promoting their second-stringer. He's been a reliable hub on both ends for a team that's firmed up into something much scarier since its big trade. Slotting in Anunoby next to him has made the Knicks prohibitively big and mean in the front court. And Hartenstein fits so well alongside the two prongs of the Knicks' offense, Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson, cannily exploiting the attention the defense throws at them with his own quick decision-making. He seems to unconstipate what can be a ball-pounding, slow-moving offense.
The Knicks have been the league's best team in the new year, riding a five-game win streak to 22-15. Despite the triumphs, Hartenstein said he has missed his big buddy. “I don’t feel like there’s stuff in the NBA like that, where at your same position you’re rooting for each other,” he said of his friendship with Robinson. “But when we were playing, if you watch the bench, we were excited for each other. Not having that now, it’s kinda sad.” As Hartenstein thrived, the differences between him and Robinson were impossible to ignore. He was also clearly playing his way into a much heftier payday this summer, and some restless fans began to envision a future without Robinson, who was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft and is by now the longest tenured Knick.
Robinson, still recovering from ankle surgery, said Tuesday that he'd be going dark on social media to look after his mental health, and the fortunes of the Knicks' bigs began to feel depressingly zero-sum. Yet, as I was writing this post, Woj reported Wednesday that the NBA denied the Knicks a Disabled Player Exception, as Robinson could be back with the team before season's end. Now Knicks supporters are in the uncanny position of extreme, justifiable optimism. Maybe this team can have it all: Hartenstein getting the rest of the season to hone his game alongside the starters, and a rehabilitated Robinson returning to back him up. Many are saying Knicks championship? Please don't contact me when they're both on the bench with huge-ass space boots on their feet and Precious Achiuwa is starting.