By and large, Blazers fans were excited to pick up Thomas Robinson from the Houston Rockets this offseason. The Rockets were looking to clear salary in advance of their pursuit of Dwight Howard, and Portland was able to snag last year’s 5th overall pick for the draft rights to Kostas Papanikolaou, Marko Todorovic and two future second-rounders. An absolute steal, all things considered.
With that said, however, there was a reason Robinson was so freely available, beyond just the need for cap space. It’s the same reason that Sacramento, the team that originally drafted him last year, sent him to Houston at the trade deadline alongside Francisco Garcia and Tyler Honeycutt for Patrick Patterson, Toney Douglas and Cole Aldrich. That’s not a blockbuster trade by any means.
What do we know about Thomas Robinson that might have led to his trade value plummeting? Certainly, he struggled as a rookie. He posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 10.9 (an average NBA player’s rating is considered 15.0), and in contrast to the players drafted directly after him (Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond), Robinson hardly justified his draft position. Somewhere along the way, both of his teams decided that dumping him for minor assets was in their best interests.
Now in Portland, Robinson gets another chance to start fresh. He said he “feels wanted” here with the Blazers, and that could be a big deal after failing to stick with either of his last two teams. Of course, one thing that will be very important is whether or not Robinson can play himself into sticking. Last year’s performance won’t earn him any guarantees with the Blazers, regardless of whether or not he feels wanted.
If Robinson wants to get his career back on track, the most important thing for him to do is to find what he does best and commit to making that his niche. For Robinson, who has built his game off of energy and rebounding, those are the things he has to make consistent, night in and night out.
Last season, Robinson averaged 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. He’s a huge guy down low, and dominates on the glass. Even though he “only” measures 6’9″, he packs a bulky 237 lb frame that’s strong enough to bully opposing players under the rim, but also athletic and explosive enough to get up for the rebound. He takes full advantage of that, playing with a high activity level and fighting his way to rebounds. In that regard, he was basically built to be an elite rebounder.
However, trusting Robinson, even just for his impact on the boards, proved difficult last season. Robinson’s effort level wasn’t always there last year. Look at Robinson’s games with most minutes played, and notice how even in those longer performances, his rebound total fluctuated from game to game, regularly varying from as few as three or four boards per game to more than eight. While it’s hard to blame Robinson for struggling to get motivated at times during such a hectic rookie season, it will need to be remedied for him to be successful.
Outside of rebounding, Robinson’s next selling point as a player is as a defender. Again, his physical profile is what makes him such a tantalizing prospect in this area of the game. Strong, mobile, active and athletic, with a very nice 7’1″ wingspan. That’s a player who can give an opposing big man a battle on the low block, or even challenge a smaller player out on the perimeter.
However, Robinson isn’t exactly a top-notch defender yet. The pieces are there for him, but mentally, he still has work to do. His positioning and rotations aren’t up to snuff, and it can lead to breakdowns for a team’s defense as a whole. Specifically, Robinson tends to linger on pick-and-rolls, and stray into the paint when guarding midrange-oriented power forwards. Additionally, when playing defense in the paint, he often gets caught ball-watching, which leads to an easy score at the rim or an offensive rebound for his original check.
With all of the tools he has, he could be a good defender in the NBA one day. However, that day hasn’t come yet. Getting his head in the game and learning the schemes of NBA defenses will be important for him, as will be working on his own shortcomings as a defender.
Robinson is even more clearly a work in progress on offense. Improvement there will have to happen gradually. His strength and athleticism lend themselves to him being able to finish strong at the basket, especially on putbacks off offensive rebounds. However, his skill level offensively is low as he lacks shooting touch on the ball, any reliable back-to-basket moves or the ability to create from outside.
For now, Robinson should take things one at a time. The most important skill that he needs first would be the midrange jumper, which is so important for NBA power forwards in the modern game. A power forward that can’t shoot is difficult to play (unless the center on the floor can make outside shots consistently, which would mean an out-of-position LaMarcus Aldridge or maybe Meyers Leonard), because it would allow the opposing defense to simply pull in the corresponding defender to clog the paint.
Almost 80% of Robinson’s shots came at the rim last season, which doesn’t indicate much confidence in his jumpshot. However, while his fundamentals were poor and his efficiency was low, he still took a jumper or two every game. If he can continue to work at it slowly and develop both confidence and consistency, he could be much more helpful offensively. A good example for him to study could be J.J. Hickson from last season, who was a pretty consistent shooter when he went to the jumpshot.
Right now, Robinson should simply worry about being consistent with what he does best and plugging up the most glaring holes in his game. With LaMarcus Aldridge seemingly settled in for a while, there’s no immediate need for Robinson to produce right away. What he should concern himself with is getting his career back on track after his tough rookie season.
If Robinson can eventually live up to the expectations that made him such a tantalizing prospect on draft day, then we’ve made a real nice pickup in trading for him. Until then, however, it’ll be a slow process as he simply tries to move on from last season. He has the physical tools, but he has yet to build upon them. Time is on his side, and now, we’ll have to wait to see if he’ll be able to properly develop within it.