One year after being a Top-5 pick, Thomas Robinson may soon be headed to his third NBA team. It’s a dramatic fall for one of the most decorated college players in recent memory. In his junior season, Robinson averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds a game on 51 percent shooting. He was the Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American. While he had a very impressive statistical profile, it could only tell us so much about his ability to play in the NBA.
Advanced statistics have become increasingly popular at every level of basketball, but there are important differences in the data sets from the NBA and NCAA. There are more than 10 times as many Division I programs as there are NBA teams, so the talent is more spread out. The problem is even more acute with big men, since there are so few NBA-caliber ones in college. Robinson’s collegiate numbers against substandard competition were a classic example of a “false positive”.
In his first two years at Kansas, Robinson backed up Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris, all of whom were Top-15 picks. As a result, he didn’t start until his junior season, following the departure of the Morris Twins. The Jayhawks played one of the top schedules in the country that season, finishing with a 32-7 record and a berth in the national championship game. Yet, despite playing in a number of high-level games, Robinson saw very few NBA-caliber big men.
Kansas faced five traditional powers in non-conference play -- Georgetown, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke and Ohio State. Of those, only Kentucky had an NBA-caliber front-line. Neither Georgetown nor UCLA had even one draft-worthy big man. Duke had Mason Plumlee, but he had to split his time against Robinson and Jeff Withey, a potential first-round pick this year. Ohio State had Jared Sullinger, but he didn’t play because of back spasms.
In conference play, Robinson was a man among boys. Missouri, the second best team in the conference, didn’t have a scholarship player above 6’9. Baylor had the horses to run with Kansas, but Scott Drew kept them in a bizarre 1-3-1 zone that essentially negated their talent. Iowa State had Royce White and that was it. The other six teams in the conference didn’t have anyone who could go toe-to-toe with Robinson, Withey and the Jayhawks front-line.
When it came to projecting Robinson to the NBA, most of his collegiate career was essentially useless. He went for 25 and 13 and 28 and 12 in two games against Missouri, but the Tigers were playing a four-out system with a 6’8 center (Ricardo Ratliffe) and a 6’6 shooting guard (Kim English) upfront. Needless to say, Robinson didn’t have many 6’6 players defending him as a rookie. There wasn’t much you could discern from his ability to dominate undersized front-lines at Kansas.
At the next level, Robinson goes up against two NBA-caliber big men protecting the paint almost every single night. That happened to him four times as a junior -- two games against Kentucky, including the NCAA title game, as well as Tourney games against UNC and NC State. In those games, Robinson averaged 16 points on 39 percent shooting. He held his own on the glass, averaging 13 rebounds, but he could not efficiently create his own shot against elite competition.
Coming into the draft, I had Robinson rated as the No. 6 power forward, in large part due to his struggles against the very best. Against Kentucky, Robinson (6’9 245) couldn’t overwhelm Terrence Jones (6’9 250) or Anthony Davis (6’11 220). They stayed in front of him and forced him to shoot over the top. He didn’t have a counter. Two games is a small sample size, but it was two games against the best defense he faced. Those games had more predictive value than the rest of his season.
While he has been a victim of circumstance with the Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets, the bigger problem has been the holes in his game exposed by Jones and Davis. Robinson can’t shoot, pass or dribble and he doesn’t have a post game, making it virtually impossible for him to create his own shot in the NBA. Like most rookie big men, he has little idea of how to play acceptable defense. Against players with his size and athleticism, the only way he can impact the game is as a rebounder.
That didn’t matter against the 6’11 stiffs and 6’8 centers Robinson faced in college, which is what makes evaluating big men so difficult. Even players in major conferences can go the entire season without facing more than a handful of NBA-caliber big men. There’s a reason front offices scour the globe looking for centers. It’s almost impossible to find a 6’9+ athlete with the skill to play basketball at the highest level. The taller you go, the harder to find.
There aren’t many dominant big men anymore, but the NBA paint is still the domain of giants. Last season, a West Coast road trip meant Marcin Gortat (6’11 240), Dwight Howard (6’11 265), DeAndre Jordan (6’11 265), DeMarcus Cousins (6’11 270) and Andrew Bogut (7’0 260). A trip to the Northeast meant Kevin Garnett (6’11 250), Brook Lopez (7’0 265), Jonas Valanciunas (6’11 230), Tyson Chandler (7’1 240) and Spencer Hawes (7’1 245). Put these guys in the Middle Ages and they could take over kingdoms.
On a nightly basis, the guy protecting the rim in the NBA is about 6’11 250 with a 7’2 wingspan. There are a few breaks in the schedule, but unless you’re Andre Drummond, you can’t expect to face guys who are smaller and less athletic than you very often. There’s nothing that can prepare a young big man for it. Before they get to the NBA, most spend their entire careers towering over the competition. That’s why, when you evaluate big men prospects, the most important games are their ones against each other.
In the NBA, Robinson is only playing against the best. It’s far too early to write him off, but his lack of skill probably means that stardom isn’t in the cards. For all they told us, his college stats might as well have been his high school ones. Even the most advanced statistics depend on the underlying data and the data coming out of college is fairly flawed. There are Type I errors (false positives) every year. There are Type II errors (false negatives) as well, but that’s a story for another day.