Thomas Robinson, listed at 6-10, 237 pounds, can take up some space, so much so that teammates and coaches took to calling him “Truck” this season due to his broad frame and muscular build.
But all that size isn’t worth much if you don’t have somewhere to put it, which was the case for Robinson the last two summers. Neither the first months after being drafted with the fifth overall pick in 2012 nor the all but certainty that he would be traded sometime during the summer of 2013 afforded Robinson the opportunity to find the offseason stability young players need in order to improve.
But this summer, Robinson finds himself in the stable confines of the Trail Blazers’ practice facility. Now with Portland for almost a full year, Robinson says he’s set up just right in Portland after being a bit lost in the shuffle for the last two summers.
“I feel comfortable,” said Robinson after a recent workout at the team’s practice facility in Tualatin. “I feel like I know I can came back here and work every day. I can go home and come back here and work! It’s just a fact of being comfortable. That’s all I want. I love it here. I just like the feeling of being comfortable, that’s all.”
Immediately after the Trail Blazers were eliminated from the 2014 postseason, Robinson took “a solid seven days off” relaxing with friends and family on the east coast before getting back to work on the court. Now back in Portland, he has put in hours and hours of practice with Portland’s coaching staff in an effort to replace some of the less endearing parts of his game with skills more useful within Terry Stotts’ system.
“I’m not trying to do nothing crazy out here,” said Robinson. “I’m just trying to either break bad habits or get used to doing stuff that I need to do next year. So I’m not in pickup trying to score 1,000 points or nothing. Even working on a move consistently that I’ve been working on, getting used to catching and shooting or catching and making a pass instead of catching and holding (the ball). Really just trying to find my teammates. I’m trying to do that, get into the swing of things and be good at finding my teammates.”
For a player who has been somewhat of a ball-stopper by his own admission in his first two seasons, understanding the importance of ball movement, particularly in an offense dependent of what Stotts refers to as “flow,” and how he can use his athleticism to open things up for himself and his teammates has been a revelation. Robinson has made a habit of putting his head down on drives to the basket with the sole intention of going to the rim regardless of the defense, with limited success (he shot 25 percent on drives last year, the worst mark on the team for any player with at least 10 drives). But now, thanks in part to help from Portland’s coaching staff, Robinson is out to change that.
“Knowing that when I drive, thinking that I’ve faster than everybody that I just drive and try to get to the hole every time,” said Robinson of one of the “bad habits” he’s trying to break. “Now, I can use my driving ability to drive and kick. After that, things open up for me, It becomes a lot easier because I’ve found myself driving one time and kicking it, then driving the next time and the rim is wide open just because I kicked it the play before.”
Robinson has also been working on perfecting “two or three moves from different spots” in an effort to diversify his offensive repertoire. But as is the case for many young players, Robinson is trying to find a balance between utilizing the skills he’s already good at (what he refers to as “the easy things”) while continuing to expand his game. That can be a bit tricky for a player coming off the bench for a 50+ win team, but the relative calm of the NBA offseason provides players like Robinson the opportunity to refine and expand skills at the same time.
“Don’t get it wrong, I’m going to do what I do best to help my team win next year,” said Robinson. “Individually, I don’t think I’m close to being just a rebounder and an energy man. I’m not stopping, not at all. At this young stage in my career and for this team, that’s what I’ll do, but that’s nowhere close to everything I can do. They know that. When that time shifts to when it’s time for me to show individual work, then I’ll be able to do that. But my talent is going to come out anyway.”
“The balance for (Robinson), and a lot of these guys, with summer league is they’re put in a position where they can do more things, but at the same time they have to understand their role next season,” said Terry Stotts. “I don’t want to limit any of our guys as far as expanding their game, and that’s part of summer league and what we’re doing here is being able to expand things, make some mistakes and play through them. Thomas is a young player, he’s finally gotten some continuity in his NBA career, he feels more comfortable with not only how we want to play but he understands where he can be successful in the NBA. All those things are going to be important for him.”
Not to mention important for the Trail Blazers. With no draft picks and limited money to spend in free agency, it will be incumbent upon the bench players, particularly Robinson, to make strides this offseason in order for Portland to take the next step in the Western Conference.
“I think with hard work, our (bench) guys can be great,” said Robinson. “We literally have a second core that’s talented. If we get those guys strong within the organization, we can do damage. Our starters don’t have to do anything but come back and get that extra help from us. Us getting better will take us above 54 (wins), cause our starters are going to be our starters. They’re established players, Dame is only getting better, LA is in his prime and so on. It’s really down to us. If we go from 54 wins to 55, we were in the gym this summer and this work helped us get one more win.
“When it comes to who has more guys to get better between the second and first group, it’s going to be the second group. You have two all-stars, three arguably. One of the best all-around players I’ve played with ever in Nico, you’ve got a dog in Wes. That’s who he is, that’s who he’s been. Them guys know who they are already. With us getting better, we made noise this year, but I think we can put ourself and keep ourself in that category with the Spurs, Oklahoma City, Miami.”
That might sound like Robinson putting the onus of success or failure next season on himself and the second unit, which, to an extent, is true. But he’s built to carry that weight, especially now that he has a stable place to put it.
“It’s just up to us,” said Robinson. “That’s cool, I want the pressure, because then you’ve got to get better. You can’t complain about something if somebody gives you a chance and you don’t do nothing. So we’re going to work, and when the chance comes, we ain’t got no excuse. If you don’t show up, you don’t show up.”