They've got four sophomore-or-rookie ballers picked within the top 11 slots of the last two drafts, all vying for minutes and optimal roles in the ceaseless machine that is a contender. Theirs is a roster replete with lessons for other youngsters.
Forget Damian Lillard, the All-Star second-year point guard starting for the Blazers. He’s an outlier—a basketball savant with more aptitude in his fingertips than most can even dream of. In analyzing last season’s Rookie of the Year, it can be hard to remember how little time he’s spent in the league. In the eyes of Portland fans, Lillard has already established himself as an icon. He might be only 23, but the Blazer fanbase sees him as the team's fearless general.
Robinson’s recent success is of a more subtle sort. As he sits in the visiting locker room at the United Center, in advance of the Blazers’ March 28 matchup with the always difficult Chicago Bulls, a team employee hands Robinson an iPad before he’s quite done with pre-game meal.
Robinson grabs the device eagerly with one hand, finishing his food with the other. It’s showing film from recent games, and he’s clearly trying to grab whatever extra knowledge he can before this challenge.
Such engagement can’t be seen from fellow sophomore Meyers Leonard, an aimlessly pacing 7-footer from The University of Illinois and the 11th overall selection in the same draft as Robinson. This is no criticism of Leonard, though: he averaged 10 minutes a game in the month of March, as his height helped him receive ample rotation time in the absence of ever-important Blazers big man LaMarcus Aldridge.
But Aldridge is in his second game back against Chicago, and everyone knows the score. Leonard’s potential still hasn’t found proper NBA form, with his Player Efficiency Rating at 9.25 and sagging and the Blazers’ offense turning into an enigmatic mess every time the ball meets his hands.
“I was always able to use my athleticism and speed and quickness to block shots and be in the right positions,” Leonard said to ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers. “Whereas now, everyone is that athletic. Now you've got to be quick with your mind. Not that I can’t do it, but it’s just been an adjustment."
Robinson, on the other hand, is thriving. Against the Bulls he plays only 12 minutes, but each of them seems crucial. With his length and speed, he’s turned into just the kind of energetic full-court prowler the Blazers need. Robinson shoots 4-for-5 with 10 points and four rebounds in Chicago, terrorizing the Bulls with his jaunts to the rim.
“Robinson is a very good athlete,” an exasperated Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau says after the game, a 91-74 blowout win for the Blazers. “It looks like he’s fit in well, he’s embraced his role. He hurt us in a short amount of time. He got something done very quickly for them.”
Robinson walks energetically through the tunnel back to the locker room following the win, animatedly workshopping strategy with a Blazers assistant. Leonard and C.J. McCollum, a rookie guard from Lehigh University who hasn’t found consistent minutes behind Lillard and Mo Williams, trot behind. They’ve each gotten just two minutes at the tail end of this lopsided affair, all but detached from the effort.
Watching young talents like them can be a difficult sight; no matter the level of talent, it often takes time to figure out what shape an NBA player fits. What type of role are they best at, and on what kind of team? McCollum and Leonard are right in the middle of that struggle, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll be solid roster contributors or marginalized NBA men.
That Robinson seems to have broken through this common NBA fog makes his performance on this evening all the more enjoyable. “I’m that spark off the bench,” he says after the game, smiling wide. “Last year, I was trying to make my role, going out of my way to prove something. You want to show everyone you can do something, that you can do can do everything at first.”
Asked about what he’s become instead of that all-powerful talent, he says “I’m a high-energy player, a defender, and an offensive rebounder. Not a scorer. I love who I am to this team, I wouldn’t change anything.”
The Blazers’ organization, of course, has played a large role in finding Robinson his niche. After bouncing around with the Kings and Houston Rockets last season, the Blazers saw an opening to trade for him when the Rockets were looking to clear salary space in order to pursue Dwight Howard. Despite a slow start to his career and suggestions that Robinson might be a bust, Portland saw value in the young forward.
This is a franchise of admirable patience with its player development—a feature which bodes well for Leonard and McCollum, too—and it knew it could make the most of Robinson's skill set. “They remind me, constantly: you can do this,” Robinson said. “They helped me get back on track.”
Robinson even goes on to repeat the tasks of his job in the third-person. “Right now, Thomas Robinson is a high-energy player, a defender and an offensive rebounder.” But there is nothing boastful about this language. Robinson is an exercising an academic detachment about himself that he’s studiously developed with his new team, becoming more pragmatic about his career.
The success and failure of Leonard, McCollum and Lillard is also largely contingent upon how their team teases them into things. Perhaps the Blazers are failing their less prominent young men—McCollum and Leonard seem like long-shots to get real playoff minutes, but they might be indispensable right now if they were elsewhere. Finding a role in the NBA is a mysterious travel.
Robinson, good for him, has blazed clarity along that path in Portland.
All quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.