There's no question that Robin Lopez has made an impact on the Phoenix Suns since being inserted into the starting lineup on January 18th. In his 19 games as a starter, the Suns have gone 14 and 5 and are out-scoring and out-rebounding opponents.
I've always been a fan of Robin based purely on his potential as a physical, mobile, and athletic big man who demonstrated raw offensive skills when I first saw him in the Vegas Summer League in July 2008. After spending last season buried on the bench behind the resurgent twenty-million dollar All-Star (MVP), and spending the first part of this season on the bench with a broken foot, we are now finally seeing what Robin can bring.
The Suns were always excited on Robin's potential as described by Suns assistant coach, John Shumate, who was part of the scouting staff that evaluated Lopez before the Suns drafted him 15th in 2008, "When you get a big guy like him who has a lot of energy, quickness and athleticism, and tenacity then those guys are few and far in between. It was just a matter of him getting comfortable and getting playing time."
Nobody with the Suns organization including Robin himself would cite anything beyond hard work and the opportunity to play consistent minutes as a 'turning point' in what appears to be his rapid development over the past 19 games. Both Shumate and (Suns assistant coach) Bill Cartwright do however, talk about Robin's "innate intelligence" which allows him to process information quickly and apply it on the court.
That is most evidenced by Lopez' remarkably low foul rate as a starter, which Coach Gentry cites as the biggest surprise about Robin's play. For his part, Robin just says this when asked about his ability to stay out of foul trouble, "That's all about having faith in each other. We feel we don't have to put people on the line. We feel the help is there."
Robin is playing smart and "big," using his size and foot work to alter shots and disrupt passes without being quite so aggressive going after blocks like he was when he came off the bench. That kind of adjustment is normal for a big man transitioning to a starting role. What isn't normal is how fast Robin has picked up this incredibly important skill - defending the paint without fouling.
As a starter Robin is averaging just 2.6 fouls per game. Compare that to Greg Oden who averaged 4.0 per game this season as a starter in similar minutes and 2.1 per game for Tim Duncan who is the gold standard (and 3.3/gm for brother Brook).
At just 6.1 fouls per 48 minutes, Robin ranks 46th in the league among all Centers. That's incredible for an energy guy like Robin who just a few months ago looked like a foul-machine.
Friday night, Robin put up a career-high 30 points on 13 of 16 shooting. He's benefiting from playing with Nash who can feed him the ball either low via bounce pass or high via lob, he benefits from defenses paying attention to Amare in the high post, and he benefits from easy put-backs and dunks. But Robin has worked hard on his offensive game and his touch around the rim has improved rapidly.
He quickly learned how to keep the ball high to avoid being stripped and he's got solid face up range out to about 10 feet already (56%) and shoots a respectable 69% from the line.
Robin's offensive game resembles a face-up power forward at this point. He is more comfortable catching and finishing on the move going towards the basket where he can use his instinctive ability and athleticism to avoid picking up charges and his touch to finish at the rim. He's ranked in the 91% percentile of his peers in non-post-up shots at the rim, which he converts at a very nice 64% rate.
I can't recall ever seeing a seven foot legit center come into the league and with this little experience and demonstrate a better face-up motion game. He's already an excellent roll man on the pick-and-roll and will only improve with time. Robin, on the other hand, has a lot of work to do with his back-to-the-basket post moves where he's rated "below average" and completes only 47% of his attempts.
Asked if Robin could develop into the type of player who can run the offense from the low post, the Suns coaching staff wanted no part of it. They insist that his primary role remains on the defensive end and on the glass.
Watching Robin's rapid development however, there is no reason to think that in another year or two he can't add a nice little face up jump shot along with post isolation moves. He's demonstrated great court awareness which will allow him to read and pass out of double teams that are soon going to be headed his way.
In the meantime, Robin's offense is an added bonus for the the Suns.
Robin's primary role is on the defensive end. His size and solid fundamentals let the Suns avoid having to double team the post and his ability to protect the paint without fouling is key for any good defensive team.
Robin's individual post defense is already excellent. In 73 isolated post defensive situations he held his man to only 30.5% shooting. He plays the role that Shaq did last season in the paint but with much more mobility. Instead of having to sag off on pick-and-rolls, Robin can trap the ball handler and recover quickly. He's not as agile and quick as an Anderson Varejao, but he's doing a much better job than his predecessor and is certainly no worse than the more mobile Channing Frye or Amare Stoudemire.
The Phoenix Suns as a team actually do a very good job defending the paint, however they are sub-par on the perimeter. Over time, the Suns should become more comfortable with Robin playing the role of "back stop" and can be more aggressive on the wings and gamble more in the passing lanes. The second unit is already adopting some of those principles.
As Robin gets more playing time and learns the tendencies of his opponents he will only improve his ability to take away their strongest moves. Robin is committed to the defensive end and he enjoys his role.
The most important thing Robin can do is rebound the ball. Which is to say he can prevent the other team from rebounding the ball, and allow his teammates to grab loose balls. Robin's individual rebound rate of 6.5 per game in 26 minutes as a starter are not all that impressive.
Read on though, to get the full story...
Impact as a starter
The numbers are absolutely mind blowing.
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The Suns are winning 10% more games since Robin became a starter in mid-January. There are obviously many other factors involved but the following stats paint a telling picture:
- The Suns field goal defense is unchanged and remains right around the league average of .459 as it has all season.
- Where the Suns have struggled is on the glass where they've given up too many offensive rebounds. That, combined with a high turnover rate, were the main reasons why the Suns defensive efficiency has been near the bottom of the league all season.
- The Suns "pre-Robin" were -2.29 in rebounding differential, which ranks around 26th in the league.
Since Robin has entered the starting lineup, the Suns have a +3.68 rebound differential which ranks 2nd in the league. That's a swing of +5.98 in rebound differential. THAT'S HUGE!!!
- When Shaq was traded to the Suns we ran a little contest to predict his impact. One the things we measured was rebounding differential. Shaq's addition to the Suns resulted in swing of +3.6 in team rebounding differential over the course of his first two month's as a Suns in 2008.
- Those additional rebounds have translated into more shot opportunities for the Suns and fewer for opponents. The Suns are taking 1.09 more FGAs per game and holding opponents to 2.61 fewer shots. That's a swing of +3.7 FGAs a game.
- Suns opponents are shooting 2.4% worse from behind the arc with Robin starting. That could be a result of not having to double-team the post as frequently.
- Offensively the Suns are just .02% worse from the field and 2.1% less from three. That's resulted in a small decline of .57 fewer points per game with Robin starting. So much for sacrificing offense for defense.
- Defensively, the Suns are holding opponents to 3.14 fewer points per game with Robin starting.
- Blocks have increased by .78 per game, while turnovers have declined .36 per game. The Suns are causing fewer opponents turnovers, however (1.36). Using a formula of blocks + steals - turnover the Suns still come out slightly ahead (.13) in this change of possession stat post-Robin vs. pre-Robin.
It has a been a LONG time since the Suns have had a defensive, mobile center like Robin who can also put up numbers on the offensive end. The natural tendency is to expect his production to fall off and to be cautious about what he can do in his first playoff appearance.
But Robin has exceed expectations by such a wide margin already that Suns fans should be forgiven their optimism.