They say that every NBA rookie will have that moment where they realize professional basketball is a business. But for Thomas Robinson, those moments were never-ending. His first season, in the NBA felt more like five long years, boiled down into one season of turbulence. Robinson, the former Kansas star, was traded twice, struggled to live up to his billing as a top-five pick, and is now preparing for his third city in 12 months.
“I feel like I’ve been in the league about five years already, and I’ve only been one,” Robinson said Sunday, during a return trip to Allen Fieldhouse. “But it’s a good thing. It matured me as a player. It matured me as a person. It humbled me a lot.”
Perhaps it was only natural. Robinson, a 6-foot-8 power forward, was projected to be a top pick in the 2012 NBA Draft before slipping to the Sacramento Kings with the No. 5 overall pick. The Kings appeared pleased that Robinson was still on the board at No. 5, but the relationship never took hold in Sacramento.
Robinson averaged just 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.9 minutes before the Kings shipped him to Houston in a late February trade. If the situation is Sacramento was untenable, the stint in Houston wasn’t much smoother. The Rockets had a logjam at power forward, and when the franchise had a chance to sign free agent center Dwight Howard this offseason, the team sent Robinson to Portland in a salary-dump move.
“Up and down,” Robinson said, “rookie roller coaster.”
For now, though, the ride appears to have slowed down a bit, and Robinson will have the opportunity for a fresh start with the Trail Blazers. He’ll join a young core that includes power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard, the league’s reigning rookie of the year. And most importantly, Robinson says, he finally feels wanted.
“They’re constantly behind me,” Robinson said. “I’ve been up and down through my rookie year (with) two teams already. So for them to come in and make me feel like it’s gonna be a home for me is definitely a big deal.”
During most of last season, Robinson kept in close contact with Kansas coach Bill Self. Sometimes, Robinson just wanted to hear a familiar voice, but other times, it was clear he needed a little confidence-boosting. The message, Robinson says, felt similar to what Self told him before his breakout junior season at Kansas.
“Just to be who I am,” Robinson says.
“He’s a rebounder that can score,” Self said, “as opposed to a scorer that can rebound.”
Robinson says he never forgot what made him an All-American at KU. But maybe he just lost it while trying to live up to expectations as a high draft pick.
“I think the main focus once I left Sacramento was everyone was trying to get me to find out who I am as a player,” Robinson says. “And that never was lost, but I tried to do something else.”
Robinson recaptured some of his old form during an NBA Summer League stint in Las Vegas. During five games with Portland, Robinson averaged 10.0 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, the most boards among players that played at least four games in Las Vegas.
“If one things describes me,” Robinson said, “it’s rebounding.”
On Sunday, Robinson and Self were reunited for a basketball camp at Allen Fieldhouse, and it gave Self an opportunity to get a good read on his former player’s state of mind.
“I think his head’s right,” Self said. “Not that his head was ever bad, but sometimes I think when things don’t go well and you get in different spots, you get a little down and stuff. I think his batteries are charged, and he’s excited to be in Portland.”
After one year in the league, Robinson’s star has undoubtedly been diminished in NBA circles. One year after Robinson nearly going No. 2 overall in the draft, the Trail Blazers would probably be content with a rotation player that cleans up the glass and adds some inside scoring. And for Robinson, maybe it’s for the best. Robinson didn’t quite live up to expectations in year one, but he’s tried to keep the pressure from affecting his career trajectory.
“It’s tough, but it’s what you ask for,” said Robinson, who still has three years and $11.8 million on his rookie contract. “I asked to be a top pick, and so of course, I knew the expectations were gonna come with it. But you know my career is not over.”
For now, Robinson is simply looking for a place to settle, a basketball home where he can feel comfortable and ready to produce. Still beloved at Kansas, Robinson can find some of that home feeling in Lawrence. (“It’s already home,” Robinson said.) But after a year on the move, he’d also like to put some roots down in Portland.
“You don’t feel settled at all,” Robinson said. “Before I even got settled, I was being traded. It’s a unique situation, but unique things tend to happen to me. So I’ll be fine.”