Blazers’ Thomas Robinson looks to reclaim game after being traded twice
LAS VEGAS — There might not be a bigger reclamation project at summer league than Trail Blazers forward Thomas Robinson — a statement that requires an extra beat to process.
Robinson is just one year removed from being the fifth pick in the draft. A horrific injury hasn’t derailed his career. He hasn’t run afoul of the law, and his biggest on-court blow-up was an elbow to the neck of Jonas Jerebko that drew a two-game suspension. And yet here is the 22-year-old Robinson, fighting to recover his reputation as an impact player, prove he’s worth rotation minutes on a fringe playoff team and make a mark on the NBA somewhere other than the transactions log.
In February, the Kings traded Robinson to the Rockets, who then dealt him to Portland earlier this month. He didn’t net a king’s ransom either time, and the second move was a pure salary dump, professional basketball’s equivalent of a scarlet letter. Yes, Houston was preparing its payroll for the arrival of Dwight Howard, but those preparations still included the decision that liquid assets (the rights to two international players and two future second-round picks) were preferable to Robinson, a highly coveted first-team All-America at Kansas.
That choice would have come as a major surprise in June 2012, but developments over the last 13 months have taken the edge off. The player selected directly behind him, Blazers guard Damian Lillard, was the unanimous Rookie of the Year. The player selected two spots behind him, Warriors forward Harrison Barnes, started for a team that advanced to the second round of the playoffs. The player selected four spots behind him, Pistons center Andre Drummond, showed flashes of All-Star potential.
As for Robinson? He has yet to start an NBA game or score more than 15 points in a game after averaging 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds as a junior with the Jayhawks. He scored two points or fewer in 30 of 70 games as a rookie despite averaging 15.1 minutes. Twenty-three players received at least one vote for the All-Rookie team; Robinson was not one of them.
Before all of that, there was a rough 2012 Las Vegas Summer League. His strong frame, major athletic tools and big numbers at an NCAA powerhouse positioned him as a potential heir apparent to Blake Griffin, who dominated the competition in winning the 2010 summer-league MVP award. While Robinson wound up averaging 13 points and 9.8 rebounds in five games for the Kings, he shot just 34.4 percent from the field and committed 4.8 turnovers per game. In his first summer-league game, Robinson recorded eight turnovers in a 34-point loss to the Bobcats. He was pressing and trying to do it all, often playing out of control.
“That was the beginning of the madness,” Robinson told SI.com last week.
This year, Robinson is looking to restore order to the madness.
“I just want to prove that I deserve to be here as a player,” he said at a news conference last week.
His new team, looking to return to the playoffs after two consecutive lottery trips, has gone out of its way to support the effort.
“He is an elite athlete and brings a unique set of physical tools to our roster,” Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said in announcing Robinson’s acquisition. “He has the potential to be one of the best young power forwards in the league and his development will be a priority for us.” Olshey later called Robinson’s acquisition “absolutely a steal” when introducing him to the local media.
In the fairy-tale version of that hype-infused story, Robinson would immediately tear through the competition in Las Vegas this week. But that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, it’s been more uneven play. Robinson has mixed flashes of explosiveness and moments of excellent energy with some no-show sequences, poor decisions with the ball and overly ambitious drives to the hoop that have often ended in turnovers and missed shots..
In Saturday’s 82-69 loss to Phoenix, Robinson had six points (on 2-for-5 shooting), eight rebounds and two turnovers in 28 minutes. In his second game, an 81-63 loss to the Lakers on Sunday, Robinson finished with seven points (on 3-for-12 shooting), 10 rebounds and five turnovers in 28 minutes.
“I saw a grown man, a lot of times,” Blazers assistant David Vanterpool said after Robinson’s first game. “Thomas really just has to give the grown-man effort all the time. He has to be consistent with his effort. His motor, sometimes it’s up really at a high level; at other times, it starts to wane. I just want him to be as consistent as possible with that type of motor and intensity.”
When he arrived in Portland, Robinson said he hoped to rediscover his emotional side on the court. He pointed out that he kept quiet and yelled in excitement only occasionally last year.
“That’s not me,” he said.
The cage still seems in place so far this week. Toward the end of his tough night on Sunday, Robinson held it together after being hit with a charge call, composing himself before patting the referee on the rear end. Afterward, he mumbled that he was doing his best not to grade himself or get frustrated with his play.
“I’m not really judging it,” he said. “I’m doing an OK job on the glass. Offense, that’s still a work in progress.”
He’s getting free rein on a Blazers summer-league team that also features CJ McCollum, the 10th pick in the June draft. That freedom hasn’t yet translated into production: Robinson’s feats of athleticism have far outnumbered his conversions. He fought hard to take — and miss — three close-range looks early against the Lakers, a possession that wound up setting the tone for everything that came later. A slash to his left produced an off-balance miss. A burst move to his right stalled out under the hoop. Another drive ended with a charge. An indecisive moment produced a missed jumper.
Robinson made it clear afterward that he wasn’t expecting such autonomy during the regular season. He said he envisions his new role as that of a “garbage man,” a clear shift in identity since his time at Kansas, and admitted that he plans to be in “much better” shape when training camp begins.
The biggest variable — bigger even than the role change or his conditioning — is the mental game.
“I’ve been tossed around a couple of times,” he said. “[My confidence] is up in the air, but I’m working my way back into getting a rhythm. It will be there. [Being traded] is kind of confusing. You don’t understand it, but I know it’s a business. It’s really not for me to understand. People in the front office make those decisions, so it’s not up to me.”
Last week, he repeatedly told reporters that he didn’t “blame” either the Kings or the Rockets for what happened last season. It was clearly Robinson’s way of taking responsibility for his own reclamation, an attempt at controlling what he is able to control. That process continued on Sunday, when he resorted to some positive reinforcement after a long night.
“I think I’m a lot quicker than a lot of fours [power forwards],” he said, as if to coach himself up. “Everything is slow to me. I’m moving fast, but the game is moving slow to me.”
It was a nice thought and it might very well prove true eventually, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. The game often seemed to move faster than Robinson: Defenders anticipated his moves, he got in his own way with some over-thinking and he took off in transition without looking for guards and without a numbers advantage to justify the assertiveness.
There is one facet of the game where he remains faster than many, though, and it’s a valuable one: rebounding. His positioning instincts and energy in traffic aren’t quite Rodman-esque, but they are superior. If this reclamation requires a stripping down of all expectations to get at his core skills and potential value on a winning team, that process will arrive first at his boardwork. Portland’s front office sees Robinson capable of replacing some of the energy and second-effort plays brought last season by J.J. Hickson, who signed a three-year deal with Denver last week. That’s a reasonable expectation, and it is work that Robinson is eager to do.
“Attacking the offensive boards and defensive boards, that’s pretty much my focus right now,” he said. “I’ve been solid on the glass [in Las Vegas but] I could rebound a little bit more. My whole focus is getting aggressive on the glass.”
That’s the proper first step on this path back.