Thomas Robinson looked into the distance, his lungs letting in a deep breath as his eyes welled with tears. All the waiting was finally over. All the uncertainty wiped away.
“I’m just happy to be here, man,” Robinson said to a television audience, his voice shaking. “Thank God.…”
Moments earlier, Robinson had been selected by the Sacramento Kings with the No. 5 pick of the NBA Draft. It was perhaps a few spots lower than Robinson had envisioned — the Charlotte Bobcats had passed on him at No. 2, and his hometown Washington Wizards had done the same at No. 3. But after the Cleveland Cavaliers made him wait just a few more minutes by unexpectedly taking Syracuse guard Dion Waiters at No. 4, Robinson’s wait was nearly over.
When his name was called, Robinson leaned over and swallowed up his little sister, Jayla, in an emotional embrace. For it was Jayla whom Robinson had promised to take care of after the death of their mother, Lisa, in January 2011.
On Thursday at the draft, held inside the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Robinson was visibly moved as he fulfilled his family mission.
“I ain’t stopping for nobody,” Robinson said. “I got work to do, and I’m gonna do it.”
The night completed a meteoric and emotional ascension for Robinson.
Four years ago, Robinson was still just a little-recruited power forward from Washington D.C., a player who would transfer to Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. before the 2008-09 season. He would reach the national scene that summer, narrowing his college choices to Kansas and Memphis. Perhaps it was coincidence, but when Robinson made his campus visit to Kansas that fall, the program was celebrating its recent national championship with a traditional ring ceremony. Robinson committed to KU a few weeks later.
One year ago, Robinson was still just a little-used power forward in Lawrence, a player that had played a supporting role on two teams that finished a combined 68-6 and received No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. In 2010-11, Robinson averaged just 14.6 minutes per game while Marcus and Markieff Morris became first-round draft picks.
“To think where he was when he came, and all the things he’s been through,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And to see that he is going to be able to provide for his family in ways that he could only dream of, even going into the season, is remarkable for him.”
Robinson averaged 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds points per game while earning consensus All-American honors in 2011-12. He would lead No. 2 seed Kansas on a run to the NCAA title game, a tourney performance that included upset victories over No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Elite Eight and a come-from-behind win over Ohio State in the Final Four.
The ride would end against No. 1 seed Kentucky in New Orleans, a game in which Robinson finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds.
Now Robinson becomes the highest drafted Kansas player since Drew Gooden was taken No. 4 overall in 2002. He’s also Kansas’ first top-10 selection during the Bill Self era.
As far as his new home, Robinson is now a member of a Kings franchise that finished 22-44 and in last place of the Western Conference’s Pacific Division last season. The Kings now add Robinson’ relentless motor and rebounding prowess to a front court that already includes former first-round picks DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson, a restricted free agent. Sacramento’s young core also includes guards Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, and Jimmer Fredette, last year’s first-round selection.
“They’re a talented team with Tyreke at the guard spot and DeMarcus down low,” Robinson told reporters at the Prudential Center. “I’ll try to build them up with rebounding and energy.”
But on Thursday, as Robinson accompanied his family in the draft’s green room, his focus seemed to stay on Jayla — on the tragedy they endured and the journey they completed together.
“I worked hard to get here and to see it all right in front of me, I got emotional,” Robinson said. “It was everything. Everything that I had been holding in came out.”
Taylor’s trip — Late on Thursday night, Tyshawn Taylor kept looking at the television. He was sitting inside Room 84, a restaurant in Hoboken, N.J., just a few miles from the NBA Draft at the Prudential Center in Newark.
The names kept flashing on the television. And none of those names were his.
“I was sitting on a step inside this restaurant,” Taylor said, “shaking my head at the pick before me and was a little bit upset. I was hearing different things.”
Finally, as the clock passed 11 p.m. on the East Coast, Taylor’s name appeared.
The Portland Trail Blazers selected Taylor in the second round with the No. 41 overall pick, and they would be trading him to the Brooklyn Nets.
Taylor, as it wound up, would be staying close to home.
“It’s weird,” Taylor said, “because I told myself at the beginning of the draft that I probably would get drafted by a team I didn’t work out for. And that’s exactly the case with Brooklyn.”
Just 10 miles from his childhood neighborhood in Hoboken, Taylor will now try to make good on an NBA Draft dream after a sometimes unstable four-year career at Kansas.
“(It’s just) right over one of those bridges over there,” Taylor said on Thursday, thinking about the distance from Hoboken to Brooklyn.
As a second-round pick for a franchise playing its first season in its new home, Taylor will have to prove himself worthy of a roster spot if he wants to earn a contract.
But after what he went through at Kansas, he’ll certainly be battle-tested. He enters the NBA after averaging 16.6 points and 4.8 assists in 33.4 minutes per game during his senior season at Kansas. It was a season that started with some turnover-plagued performances but finished with Taylor solidifying himself as one of the best guards in the country as KU won its eighth straight Big 12 title and advanced to the NCAA title game.
“He’s not scared of work,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And his athletic ability and his talent will win out over time. Because all he’s got to do is just be who he is.”
On Thursday, Taylor said he still hadn’t met Jay-Z, the New York-based rapper who serves as a high-profile minority owner for the Nets. But that may change soon.
“I haven’t,” Taylor said, “but I’m looking forward to it.”
For now, he’s just looking to the future. After four years at Kansas, he’s returning home to continue his basketball journey.
“Being a four-year player at a university like Kansas,” Taylor said, “I think just gives me a step up on the competition. I think I come into the league ready — ready to play right now.”