For the first nine games of the year, Nick Robinson manned the starting small forward position while Josh Childress rested and healed a stress reaction in his foot. The redshirt junior from Liberty, MO played big minutes in some of those games, including 37 against then #1-ranked Kansas. Starting point guard Chris Hernandez was out for two of those preseason games with back troubles, which forced Robinson to play meaningful minutes atop the offense as well.
When Childress worked his way back into the rotation in January, Robinson continued to play more than 20 minutes each game for the next three weeks. Only in the fourth week of the Pac-10 season did he move to the bench, now in a more clearly defined reserve role. But then starting power forward Justin Davis was lost to a knee injury just three games later at Oregon State. The following week, Robinson was back in the starting lineup - now as a frontcourt player.
The difference between the "three" and the "four" defensively in a game can vary, depending on the personnel and matchups that a given opponent brings to the game. But the offensive roles are quite distinct in Stanford's offense - in both games and practices. During the week, the team practices stretches of time in positional groupings, typically with the frontcourt players off by themselves with big assistant coach Eric Reveno. They work on low and high post offensive plays and defensive tactics. The wings are in another world, passing around the perimeter and refining their jump-shooting and dribble-drives.
Practices work on cerebral functions for the game, but they also condition players to react in various situations and plays by muscle memory. You are being conditioned to move to certain spots on the floor and act out specific movements in the offensive sets. Transitioning from a "wing" to a "big" requires a complete change of focus on the floor - for both offense and defense.
Robinson made that transition well enough, as he started the last nine games of the regular season at the power forward. With Davis completely out of action, Robinson was not some utility man who could be utilized creatively as a four-man; instead, he was a crucial cog in the tight post rotation. Only Matt Haryasz and Joe Kirchofer were available to backup Robinson and Rob Little. Foul trouble was commonplace for one or more of that quartet, which is a big reason why Robinson averaged 28+ minutes game over that stretch.
But then last weekend in the Pac-10 Tournament, Davis returned to game action. The fifth-year senior power forward came off the bench for limited minutes each of the first two games, but in the final contest against Washington, he started and played a surprising 27 minutes. Barring some reinjury of his knee, Davis will start the remainder of the season for Stanford and likely play big minutes. Rather than juggle three players at the power forward position, Mike Montgomery would like to utilize Robinson elsewhere on the floor.
"We want to use Nick at the two, three and the four. He's so valuable off the bench," the cogitating coach offers. "He's just such a smart defender - such a smart player. He does so many things for us. I told him, 'I need you on the perimeter." Let's see if we can get by with Justin and Matt [at power forward]. Maybe Joe and Rob could play together, even. Joe has played really well."
And so the 24-year old ping pong ball is shuttled once again to a new position on the floor. A change like this 30 games into the season could be a traumatic one for almost any player, but Robinson has been juggled between wing and post positions his entire Stanford playing career. Change is just about the only constant he has known.
"He did it early on," Montgomery reminds us of Robinson playing on the wing. While his time the first two months of the season were at the small forward, rather than the shooting guard, in the Stanford offense there is little enough difference as to be of no concern to the redshirt junior.
"Essentially I feel no difference between the two and the three," Robinson declares. "I don't feel much of an adjustment. And I've been working out here [on the wing] the last few weeks already. This wasn't just a change this week after Justin played. We had been leading up to this. I've already been spending a lot of time in practice with the wings."
The Missouri man also recognizes that the way in which he played at the forward position had a little more "wing" flavor to it than your run-of-the-mill post player.
"To be honest, even when I'm a four I play on the perimeter," Robinson admits. "I have to continue to be aggressive attacking the basket, and hope to hit some shots. At the two, I should have a good size advantage and still be able to get to the basket."
Driving to the hole has seldom been a question for the versatile 6'7" Stanford man, though. The concern by observers has been his outside shooting. Whether or not he is a good jump shooter remains to be seen, but it has become painfully clear that he is reticent to shoot in perimeter situations. Robinson has taken just 16 shots beyond the arc in his last 10 weeks (19 games). He has made only four during that span.
"We'd like to get him back to shooting the ball early," Montgomery allows. "Like to see him hit four of six."
This is the critical factor to watch for Robinson on offense if he plays these minutes at the shooting guard that Montgomery is forecasting. The scouting report on the wing/forward is clear: Play off him to protect against that long-stride drive. No worries, he won't shoot.
A shooting guard who doesn't shoot is probably a liability in this offense, which through much of the year has enjoyed scoring threats from all five positions on the floor. But playing time and positions are about much more than offense for Mike Montgomery. Defense ultimately rules in his book.
"Nick really helps us on the perimeter," says Childress on the prospect of playing with Robinson "smaller" than him on the wing. Previously this year they have played together with Robinson inside as a "bigger" forward.
"He is a heck of a defender," Childress continues. "To have big forwards like him spread out there defending guards - that's great. Nick is probably our best all-around defender. Most teams have an excellent wing; it will be great to have Nick to shut that down."
Though each team will need to win three games before they can meet, the spectre of Connecticut's Ben Gordon looms large in the minds of many Cardinalmaniacs™. He blew by Stanford defenders in turnstile fashion, driving to the basket in a veritable carpool lane. The Phoenix bracket this year has plenty of talented wings who could give the Cardinal problems, as well. If Childress is correct, and Robinson can be the designated stopper to plug those lethal leaks on the perimeter defense, this move could be the missing link for Stanford's drive to a return trip to San Antonio and the Final Four.
- For those worried about the health of Justin Davis' knee after three games in three days last weekend, including an alarming 27 minutes, there is good news. While Montgomery admits he may have gone too far with his recuperating senior forward in the Pac-10 Tournament final game ("Maybe that was more minutes than I should have had him in there - but he looked pretty good"), there does not appear to have been any ill-effects. Says Davis after the blitzkrieg of minutes last weekend, "I feel fine - just tired from the games, the travel and this heat. [The knee] is better than I expected. It's alright."
- Though it has been an assumption of coaches and teammates all season, there have been some nervous nellies in the Stanford fanbase who have asked the concerned question about Nick Robinson's fifth year. At 24 years old, with a wife and new baby girl, would he still have the desire and incentive at this stage in his life to stick around Stanford for a fifth year? The Missouri native took a redshirt his first season on The Farm (2000-01) and has another year of eligibility remaining should he choose to use it. "Of course I'm coming back," he replied to my question, with a surprised blank stare that the question even needs to be asked. Robinson has applied and already been accepted for a co-teriminal fifth year in the Sociology Department, where he will pursue a master's degree while simultaneously concluding his bachelor's studies next year. Should Josh Childress jump to the NBA this spring, Robinson would be a no-brainer to start at the small forward position in the 2004-05 season. A more interesting question will be debated as to whether Mike Montgomery would start Robinson at the shooting guard position if Childress stays. The wise Stanford veteran, known as "Pops" by teammates, would be tough to keep on the bench with three starting spots to fill. But there is already good depth and competition at the off-guard between Dan Grunfeld and Tim Morris next year, while the depth at the power forward will be thin behind presumptive starter Matt Haryasz. Much food for thought in the coming off-season. We'll chew on it then, once we know what Childress does...
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