- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.
Thomas Robinson was seen as one of the safest picks in the 2012 NBA Draft. At 6'9 240, he was an elite athlete with prototypical size for the power forward position at the NBA. A first-team All-American, Robinson averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds a game as a junior, leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game.
The Sacramento Kings took him with the No. 5 overall pick, expecting to plug him into the starting lineup next to DeMarcus Cousins. Instead, Robinson lasted only a few months with Sacramento before being shipped to the Houston Rockets and then the Portland Trail Blazers, becoming the rare Top 5 pick to be on three teams in less than a season.
So what happened?
Robinson, like many of Bill Self's players, looked better than he really was at Kansas. While Self gets his fair share of elite recruits, he has won ten Big 12 championships in a row because he recruits players who fit his system, which maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.
At Kansas, Robinson shared a frontcourt with Jeff Withey, a second-round pick in 2012. Withey, at 7'0 235, was an elite shot-blocker who cleaned up a lot of Robinson's mistakes on the defensive end. On offense, Withey could play high-low with Robinson and knock down a 20-foot jumper.
Self's inside-out offense slowed down the pace of the game and put guards who could space the floor around Withey and Robinson, giving them a ton of room to operate in the paint. At that point, there wasn't much the vast majority of NCAA front-lines could do against a 7'0 and a 6'9 who would play in the NBA.
However, when he faced big men who could match his size and athleticism, Robinson was a fairly limited offensive player. He couldn't consistently knock down a perimeter jumper, couldn't put the ball on the floor, couldn't score out of the low post and couldn't create shots for his teammates.
His struggles in their two games against Kentucky, one of the only teams they faced with multiple NBA-caliber big men, should have been a red flag. At the next level, every frontline looks like Kentucky’s.
Rather than being a safe pick, Robinson was a fairly substantial gamble. He projected as an average defender at PF, an average shot-creator, a minus shooter, a minus passer and a plus rebounder. Whoever drafted him would need to spend several years developing his offensive game before he would be a starting-caliber player.
After spending their whole lives as the biggest and baddest players on the court, the vast majority of big men become just another guy at the highest level of the game. Unless you are Andre Drummond, you don't enter the league bigger and faster than everyone you face.
Drummond was taken by the Detroit Pistons at No. 9 in 2012, four spots after Robinson. After one season at UConn, he was seen as one of the biggest gambles on the board, a raw big man who hadn't proven he could channel his physical gifts into consistent production.
At 6'11 275, Drummond has an unprecedented combination of size and athleticism. We have never seen a man his size do the things he can do in the air - he can take the ball between his legs and dunk in one motion. Nevertheless, despite going up against much smaller and less athletic players on a nightly basis in college, he averaged only 11 points and 8 rebounds a game.
Unlike Robinson, Drummond wasn't in an ideal situation in college. He shared a front-court with Alex Oriakhi, a fringe NBA prospect who couldn't shoot the ball. Since neither Drummond nor Oriakhi could stretch the floor, opposing teams packed the paint against UConn.
On the perimeter, the Huskies never replaced Kemba Walker, who had left for the NBA draft the year before. Shabazz Napier, their starting PG, was still learning the game, more comfortable looking for his own shot than setting up his teammates. Ryan Boatright, their other PG, spent most of the season in NCAA limbo.
Soon after Drummond enrolled at UConn, the program got hit with APR (academic) sanctions that would make them ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament. To top it off, John Calhoun came down with cancer in the middle of the season.
Scouts looked at Drummond's tools and lack of consistent production as a freshman and wondered whether he loved the game. What they should have been asking is whether any of that would have mattered.
Would it have made Oriakhi a better shooter? Would it have made Napier a better passer? Would it have kept Boatright out of the NCAA's crosshairs? Would it have stopped the APR sanctions from coming down or kept his coach from getting cancer?
When you are scouting a player in college, you have to scout his teammates and his coaching staff too. If you don't know what's going on with his team, you will only get an incomplete picture of what's going on. Their team can make them look better or worse than they really are.
In the NBA, where Drummond has played with PF’s who can shoot and PG’s who can pass, he has been unstoppable on the pick-and-roll. He is bigger, more coordinated and more athletic than every center in the league - he has a lot of value standing in front of the rim.
If he were an NFL prospect, the draft conversation around him would be much different. The NFL scouts would have taken one look at him in the combine and lost their mind - Drummond had measurables as good as any prospect coming into the NBA in the last generation.
Two years later, does anyone care what Drummond or Robinson did in college? When projecting players to the NBA, past production doesn't necessarily mean anything.
- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.