Larry Nance Jr. is one of the most popular members of the Los Angeles Lakers and a favorite of head coach Luke Walton, but he has struggled with injuries throughout his brief NBA career. He missed 19 games in his rookie season and has been out 12 games already this year, all with assorted knee issues. He is currently sidelined for at least two more weeks, and his precise return date has not yet been announced.
When a player is injured it presents an opportunity for someone to take his place and showcase what he can do. In this instance, that person is Thomas Robinson, and the inescapable truth is, Robinson has shined in Nance’s absence. On Friday night, the Lakers beat the Miami Heat, 127-100, and in the process received a stat line from Robinson that has become very typical for him in Nance’s absence. In 17 minutes off the bench, he scored seven points, grabbed nine rebounds, and made two steals. As usual, he played tenacious defense and brought toughness in the paint and around the basket which is important on a team with mostly finesse players.
Robinson’s story is anything but ordinary. He is 25 years old and in his fifth NBA season. Born in Washington D.C., he attended high school in New Hampshire before enrolling at the University of Kansas.
In his junior year, he averaged 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, earning numerous honors including First Team All-American, Final Four All-Tournament Team, Big 12 Player of the Year, and ESPN.com Player of the Year. He was a finalist for the John R. Wooden Award and a finalist for the Naismith College Player of the Year. He decided to forego his senior season and declared for the NBA Draft. With this pedigree, he looked like a future star on the next level.
Robinson was indeed a high lottery selection, chosen by the Sacramento Kings with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. The future looked bright, but things did not develop as projected. It sounds impossible, but after brief stops in Sacramento, Houston, Portland, Denver, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, the Lakers are Robinson’s seventh team in five seasons.
Curiously, it is not as though Robinson was ever a bust on the court. In limited playing time, his statistics have always been consistent with how he has performed for the Lakers this season. For example, he started seven games for the Brooklyn Nets last year in which he averaged 14.6 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. He may have been hurt by the perception that he has a stand-offish, sullen personality, but it is unclear whether that assessment is fair.
Earlier this season, Nance teamed effectively with Tarik Black in one of the league’s best second units. Black is another player who deserves more minutes, but just as last year when the team stood stubbornly behind Roy Hibbert, this year it is all about Timofey Mozgov. The truth is, the team almost always played better with Nance and Black in the lineup together instead of Mozgov and Julius Randle, especially on defense where the team always struggled. Now, with Nance out, it is Black and Robinson who are bringing energy and positive results when they play at the same time.
The last game against the Heat is a good example. Robinson scored seven points and grabbed nine rebounds while Black had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Both are vastly superior to Mozgov as defenders, shot blockers, and rebounders. In the loss to Portland the game before, which saw the Lakers meltdown in the fourth quarter, it would have been interesting to see Robinson and Black on the court with the game on the line surrounded by three shooters such as D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Lou Williams. Coach Luke Walton has yet to try that line up deep in the fourth quarter, but it may be coming.
This past offseason, Robinson was a free agent and took his time deciding where he would play this year. He realized the importance of the choice that he would not get many more opportunities. In interviews, Robinson explained that when he entered the league all he thought about was becoming a superstar, but now he realizes that for him, it should be all about defense and rebounding. Robinson is hungry to prove himself, and he is one of the only members of the team who plays hard nose, lock-down defense all the time. Further, on a team where the starting center averages fewer than five rebounds a game, the 6’10”, 240-pound Robinson can do better than that with his eyes closed.
The Lakers may have received an unexpected gift in Robinson. Not long ago he was a high lottery selection with a lot or promise. He consistently achieved the same solid results he has shown the Lakers this season but for whatever reason did not fit in and was included in one trade package after another. C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers said of Robinson last summer (via Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders), “I think he can help any team in this league with his skill-set and motor. He just needs the right opportunity.”
He may have found that opportunity with the Lakers. On any night that Robinson gets 18-20 minutes of playing time, he can be counted on to finish with 10 points and 10 rebounds, or better, while playing tough defense. Most teams, and certainly the Lakers, can use that kind of production.
The Lakers signed Robinson to a non-guaranteed contract before the start of training camp. He was a surprise member of the 15-man roster when the season began, and this weekend the team must decide whether to guarantee his contract for the remainder of the season. That seems a foregone conclusion at this point, but the most intriguing question is, in light of his contributions while Nance has been out, what happens when Nance returns?