Thomas Robinson is getting dangerously close to becoming a bona fide bust. The fifth pick in the 2012 NBA draft had been with four teams in three seasons before signing with the Brooklyn Nets this summer. It’s been a precipitous fall for someone who claimed to be the best player in a draft that included Anthony Davis.
That blind belief on his ability has actually hindered Robinson’s prospects as a pro. He tried to do too much in Summer League as a rookie and was a disaster. He’s insisted on taking mid-range jumpers when it’s obvious to anyone but him that he can’t hit them. He’s simply tried to live up to his draft position and be a star instead of carving out a role for himself first.
It looks like that’s finally changing (via Tim Bontemps of the New York Post):
“My approach is always the same,” Robinson said. “Get everything that comes off the glass. Everything that comes off the glass is mine. Any possible steal that’s near me is mine. Any block that’s possible that’s near me is mine.
“The rebounding and defense, that stuff I do naturally, with my eyes closed. Everything else I do, scoring eight to 10 points, that’s all icing on the cake for me this year.”
No one would be blamed for being skeptical at this point, but if Robinson is in fact serious about embracing a role as a rebounder and defender, he could turn his career around. Not only does he have the skills to excel in that capacity, but he’s also in the perfect place to do so.
The Nets’ big man rotation is comprised of Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and Andrea Bargnani. Lopez has always struggled securing boards, Bargnani is historically bad at it and Young is undersized. Robinson boasts a career average in total rebound percentage of 18.7, which dwarfs Lopez’s (13.1), Young’s (10.4) and Bargnani’s (9.5). The team finished in the bottom half of the league in both defensive and offensive rebounding last year despite arguably having better rebounding personnel in Kevin Garnett and Mason Plumlee. Brooklyn desperately needs help on the glass.
In his only full season with a team — the 2013-14 Blazers — Robinson averaged 4.4 rebounds in just a shade over 12 minutes a game. In a similar role but surrounded by below-average glass cleaners, he could post insane per-minute rebounding numbers. Players have built entire careers around that skill, and unlike guys who steal boards from teammates (hi there, J.J. Hickson), a high 46 percent of Robinson’s rebounds were of the contested variety, per SportVU. He’s a legitimate volume rebounder.
The second aspect of Robinson’s reinvention revolves around his defense. It’s hard to really know how good he actually is on that end because he’s never had stability so far in his career. Knowing the system and teammate’s tendencies are huge parts of being a solid defender, especially for a big man.
What’s clear is that at 6’9″ with a 7’3″ wingspan, he has great physical tools for a power forward and could even serve as a small ball center in specific situations. He contested a solid amount of shots per minute last season and opponents shot under 48 percent at the rim with him defending, a decent mark, per SportVU. The former Jayhawk doesn’t figure to be a true defensive anchor but has actually posted promising rim protection numbers, which could make him a good fit next to both Bargnani and Young.
Next to Lopez the offense might suffer, since neither has proven range, but the defense could be stout. Lopez takes up a lot of space inside and does a good job protecting the rim, while Robinson is actually pretty agile and can defend perimeter-oriented forwards or cover a lot of ground when attacked by guards:
So far in preseason, Robinson is actually playing to his strengths instead of trying to do too much. He’s pulled down a combined 28 rebounds in two preseason games and has a gotten four blocks and two steals. More importantly, he’s attempted only one shot outside of the paint. For once, he’s playing like what he is — a role player — instead of what he wants to be.
There’s a long journey ahead for Robinson before he can reclaim the respect he feels he deserves and has been denied so far into his career. At 24 years of age, he could still eventually develop into the two-way impact player he thinks he can be. To do that, however, he needs to find a team to call home. He’s off to a good start in Brooklyn.