It will begin with a handshake and a baseball hat. The moment the well-groomed young man becomes an instant basketball millionaire.
Thursday night inside the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., former Kansas All-American Thomas Robinson will glide across the stage in a freshly pressed suit, flash his Madison Avenue smile, and pull the bill of his new cap down over his forehead. His baby sister, Jayla — his motivation for the past year after overcoming a string of family tragedy — will likely watch from the green room.
NBA commissioner David Stern will look on proudly, and Robinson, a 6-foot-8 power forward, will turn toward the cameras and have his NBA Draft moment — three seconds that will be logged into the archives and symbolize the birth of a new career.
“It feels great,” Robinson told reporters at a predraft news conference on Wednesday. “Because I honestly feel like I worked for mine.”
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But this will only be the end of part of the Robinson story. And for now, there are still questions to be answered as Robinson waits for his draft moment.
What will Robinson’s hat say? And what will Robinson mean for the team that selects him?
The first answer, of course, comes tonight. After an All-American junior season at Kansas — a year in which he led the Jayhawks to the NCAA title game — Robinson is projected to be the highest draft pick of the Bill Self era.
Kentucky freshman center Anthony Davis is considered a near lock to go No. 1 to the New Orleans Hornets. But Robinson finds himself in the next group of players — a collection still hoping to be selected No. 2 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats.
“I think it’s a coin flip,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He could go second or sixth, just depending on how things fall.”
Earlier this week, Robinson told reporters during a workout in Charlotte that he had only conducted personal workouts with two other teams — his hometown Washington Wizards, who own the No. 3 pick, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who draft fourth.
Robinson will likely become the first Jayhawk to be selected in the top 10 since Kirk Hinrich was drafted No. 7 overall by the Chicago Bulls in 2003. And there’s a fair chance Robinson could become the highest drafted KU player since Danny Manning went No. 1 in 1988. (Former Kansas forward Raef LaFrentz was picked third in 1998.)
But after Robinson takes his walk, the focus will turn to whether he can live up to the lofty expectations of the second or third pick in the draft.
In perhaps the best-case scenario, Robinson becomes an All-Star level power forward who can dominate the game with his athleticism and preternatural rebounding ability. According to advanced stats tabulated by college basketball stats expert Ken Pomeroy, Robinson was the sixth college player in the last five years to have a defensive rebounding percentage of better than 30 percent. (In short, that means Robinson hauled 30 percent of all defensive rebounds while he was on the floor.) And of the five other players to accomplish that feat, only Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin, now an All-Star forward for the LA Clippers, did it while playing in a major conference.
“He’s got a great body,” said Wally Szczerbiak, a former NBA All-Star forward who is now evaluating the draft for the CBS Sports Network. “He’s strong. He knows how to use his body.”
Earlier this month, Robinson wasn’t shy about expressing his confidence at the NBA Draft combine in Chicago. When Davis showed up at the media session wearing a black T-shirt that read: “Check My Stats”, Robinson responded with an honest jab.
"If you wanted to check the stats,” Robinson told reporters, “then I’d be the No. 1 pick easily — if that’s what you want to do. I should get one of those shirts. I’ll get a shirt that says, ’Numbers don’t lie.’ ”
Still, Robinson’s impressive college numbers — he averaged 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds last season — haven’t quieted some concerns about how he will perform against longer and stronger NBA power forwards.
And this is, perhaps, the worst-case scenario, where Robinson becomes something close to a role player who may not merit a top-three pick.
“If anybody’s questioning his strength, they’re crazy,” KU teammate Tyshawn Taylor said. “I think there’s plenty of people you can look at and say that Thomas is something like him.”
Taylor mentions Utah’s Paul Millsap, an undersized power forward who has used his rebounding prowess and motor to become an impact player. Szczerbiak, meanwhile, compares Robinson to Chicago’s Carlos Boozer or Philadelphia’s Elton Brand. Robinson also quieted some concerns by measuring a solid 6-8 (with shoes on) at the combine and showcasing an impressive wingspan of 7-3 1/4.
“You look at guys like Carlos Boozer, Elton Brand — (he’s) right around those guys’ height,” Szczerbiak said. “Obviously, length is so coveted in the NBA. They say length wins championships and that’s true.
“But when you got a guy that plays with a lot of heart, and a lot of soul and a high motor … I think he’s going to be very successful at the next level.”
For Robinson, the draft will also be the culmination of a personal mission he set for himself after a heartbreaking winter during his sophomore season. In the span of a month, Robinson lost both maternal grandparents and his mother, Lisa.
Robinson, still just a teenager at the time, was left to worry about the future of Jayla, who turned 9 earlier this year. Now brother and sister are in New York, and Robinson’s walk across the stage will mean something to both of them.
“It just feel like I can see the finish line,” Robinson said. “So walking across that stage, I just leave everything I had to face behind me. All the problems I had to face, everything (is) behind me, and I got past it.
“So once I shake David Stern’s hand, then I’ll feel like I did something.”