There’s an underlying assumption of security that comes with being a top-five pick in the NBA Draft. By virtue of the way the lottery works, you’re probably on a bad team and presumably will get plenty of playing time to prove your worth. Your team is counting on you to produce and become a building block to success, so they will give you plenty of chances to do so.
Presumably, Thomas Robinson made an assumption to this effect when he was drafted fifth overall by the Sacramento Kings in 2012. The Kings were — and are — bad and in need of a running mate for the fifth overall pick in 2010, DeMarcus Cousins. Robinson seemed likely to get decent minutes for at least two or three years, and probably longer than that if he managed to mostly not suck.
Robinson lasted 51 games in Sacramento. Less than 8 months after being drafted, he was shipped off to the Houston Rockets for Patrick Patterson.
Less than 5 months after that, Robinson was on his way to the Portland Trailblazers. He has not yet been traded elsewhere, as far as I know, but it’s been three months now, so it could happen any time.
Robinson fell victim to Houston’s pursuit of Dwight Howard, as his approximately $3.5 million salary ate into otherwise available cap space. Regrettable, perhaps, but logical. As for Sacramento, well … it appears Mr. Robinson got himself Maloof’d. That is, the notoriously cash-strapped Maloofs, then the owners of the Kings, shipped him off for a marginally cheaper return and pocketed the savings.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Sacramento front office decided that Robinson wasn’t worth the trouble and that Patterson was a player they really liked, but I find it hard to believe that an NBA team would give up on such a high draft pick so soon. Top-five draft picks simply do not get traded during their rookie seasons in the NBA. From 2003 to 2011, it happened all of once, when the then-New Jersey Nets traded Derrick Favors — #3 overall in 2010 — to the Utah Jazz for Deron Williams after trying desperately to trade him for Carmelo Anthony.* Other than that? Hasn’t happened. Why would it? Superstar-caliber players on their rookie contracts are the single most valuable asset an NBA team can have that is not LeBron James.
*That’s a special case because everyone knew the Nets were trying to trade for a superstar — they didn’t give up on Favors so much as they leveraged him for a proven commodity.
So now — irrespective of how he got there — Robinson is in Portland. He has a defined role as the first big man off the bench behind starters LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, and a coaching staff that believes in him. So he’s good to go now, right?
Well, not exactly. See, the thing that kind of gets glossed over in discussing Robinson’s odyssey is that he wasn’t all that good in either locale.
In 70 games between Houston and Sacramento, Robinson shot a paltry 43 percent from the field. That’s mostly acceptable for a guard, but for a big man — especially one as athletic as Robinson — that’s terrible. He did improve to about 45 percent in Houston, but 1) that’s a tiny sample size (19 games) and 2) his free throw percentage, already bad at 57.7 percent in Sacramento, fell off a cliff in those 19 games (42.1 percent).
Why is that? His jumper wasn’t the problem. A quick trip to the NBA’s stats page tells us that Robinson took just 58 of his 321 field goal attempts outside of the lane, which isn’t enough to impact his shooting percentage significantly even if he missed every one of them. No, there’s a different explanation for his struggles. See if you can spot it:
OK, so there’s a lot of red there. The problem is that Robinson shot all of 45.85 percent in the restricted area last season. That’s horrible. Robinson took nearly 79 percent of his shots at or around the rim and missed well over half of them. I have no explanation for this. None whatsoever.
Can that be fixed? Probably. The man is 6’10″ and built like a tank, so I have to assume this will improve. This video is 8:20 long and the first five minutes or so are basically just T-Rob layups and dunks.
OK, well now I’m even more confused than I already was. There’s plenty of power there, and even some nice touch — those spin moves are actually really impressive — so that rules out my first two theories. My only guess is that Robinson was afraid to get fouled because he couldn’t make his free throws. That, you would think, is fixable.
Otherwise, Robinson is a ferocious rebounder, especially on the offensive end, where he averaged 4.2 offensive boards per 36 minutes last year, and has the tools to be a capable defender. There’s no guarantee he ever becomes a good defender, but it’s possible, and the NBA will keep guys around who can rebound and defend, as long as they have their head on straight.
So let us pray that the odyssey is finally over, and Robinson has made it safely to Ithaca, where he can rest and focus on actually getting better. Because if not, then the basketball gods have decided to punish him and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Here’s to Ithaca and peace.