“I got work to do,” Thomas Robinson said at the 2012 NBA draft. ”I ain’t stopping for nobody.”
But that was more than a year ago, when the 22 year-old Portland Trailblazers forward was considered the steal of the draft and a cornerstone of the Sacramento Kings rebuilding effort. It seems far longer than that, of course, considering the rocky road Robinson’s traveled since realizing his NBA dreams.
Robinson was a bit player for the Kings his rookie season, averaging 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game for a crowded Sacramento frontcourt. He shot just 44.9% from the field, even worse from the free throw line and often appeared visibly frustrated with his role on a team and organization in constant states of flux. The February trade that sent him to Houston was a surprise, but a good one. The Rockets dealt Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris for financial flexibility more than to accommodate Robinson, but a gaping hole was left in Houston’s frontcourt nonetheless. Robinson was the logical choice to fill it, going from deep reserve on a lottery team to key rotational cog with one fighting for a playoff spot.
But basketball is never that simple. Robinson’s physical interior game didn’t mesh with a Rockets team intent on space and pace at all costs, and Kevin McHale’s reluctance to let youngsters play through growing pains compounded matters. His role varied from one game to the next initially, before he was fazed out of the rotation altogether as April days grew longer. Robinson didn’t log a single minute in Houston’s five-game first round loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Once summer came, the Rockets longterm goal complicated things even further. Robinson’s name was in trade winds again, this so Houston could shed cap room for the opportunity to sign Dwight Howard outright. His once-exalted name seemingly made immediately available to the highest bidder, there should have been a fire-sale. But there wasn’t.
The June 27th NBA draft came and went without a trade. Days later, the Rockets agreed to send Robinson – 12 months removed from being the fifth overall pick in a superior draft – to Portland for pennies on the dollar: the rights to Kostas Papanikolaou and Marko Todorovic, as well as two second-round picks.
So this is where Robinson finds himself in still the most formative days of his NBA career, on his third team in just over a calendar year, already a journeyman before he’s had extended game opportunities to prove he’s otherwise. Falls this precipitous shouldn’t happen. There were unique extenuating circumstances in both of his previous stops, but something more than broad organizational concerns have put Robinson at this early crossroads.
Deciphering why is bigger than his shooting struggles or reportedly poor understanding of basic NBA concepts. There’s more at play when it comes to Robinson, certainly, once the rare NCAA prospect that combined an elite physical profile with production to match and room to grow.
A confluence of factors go into shaping a player during his malleable years and half of them are beyond his control. A player’s upside is limited until he gets a chance to prove it in game situations, and extra shooting and conditioning only does so much if a player’s strengths clash with his team’s general philosophies. It takes the right fit for all but basketball’s best to shine as bright as they’re ultimately capable, and even in ideal situations players develop at different paces.
To be fair, much has been made behind the scenes of Robinson’s questionable self-awareness, and his limited on-court opportunities confirm those whispers. The enthusiastic player that made his original mark at Kansas by cleaning the glass and doing the proverbial little things was gone last season, replaced by a mercurial one horribly miscast as a primary offensive option. The remaining half of a player’s trajectory has as much to do with understanding his own base strengths and weaknesses as anything else, and Robinson showed little his rookie season – in Sacramento or Houston – to suggest he ever would.
But he was the impact role player he should be during his first two years at Kansas, and showed enough shot-making talent his junior season to suggest he could be that and even a little more. One of the reasons pundits were high on Robinson going into the 2012 draft were his fantastic collegiate rebounding numbers, and he exhibited that strength last season – he ranked seventh among PFs in offensive rebounding rate – despite a motor that ran far below his established standards. Combined with his natural athleticism and flashes of offensive skill, there’s definitely a legitimate NBA future here; the crux with Robinson is properly mining it.
That means structure. It means consistency. A role, and an organization intent on getting Robinson to realize it to his full potential. Groupthink permeates in the NBA, and if one team thinks a player looks, quacks and swims like a duck, others will, too. That aspect is another reason why Robinson finds himself on his third team in a single year. But bucking trends, taking chances and noticing things others don’t is how good organizations build great teams.
Who knows what the Blazers see in Robinson? The price they paid to get a good glimpse is small enough it might be little. But they have it now, and whatever it may be is just as important as how Robinson sees himself. Both need to throw away original expectations, punt his tumultuous rookie year and look through the most basic lens, one that shows a young, 6’9” power forward with rare athleticism and rebounding instincts that needs a fresh start.
Even then Robinson still might never live up to his once lofty status as a prospect. But he will certainly realize his chance to fulfill the draft day promise he made last year and now needs to remember more than ever. If he does, Robinson simply has too much talent to fail.