A year ago at this time, Glenn Robinson III was the talk of Pacers training camp. He was opening eyes in the exhibition games, seemingly poised to find a place in the playing rotation and have a breakout season.
Here we go again. Robinson is once again a popular topic of conversation in training camp, opening eyes in the exhibition games and poised – at least for now – to find a place in the rotation. A breakout season seems a strong possibility.
Robinson is averaging 11.6 points while shooting 58 percent from the field and 75 percent (9-of-12) from the 3-point line through five preseason games, with one to go in Milwaukee on Wednesday. He's shot well, defended well and taken advantage of the playing opportunity afforded by the absence of C.J. Miles, whose sore knee has kept him out of all but the first game.
You've seen this kind of promising performance before, though. Last year he averaged 10.3 points in the preseason, hitting 54 percent from the field and 47 percent from the 3-point line, but became difficult to find when things got real. He played in 45 regular season games, averaging just 3.8 points. There was the occasional standout performance, such as scoring 17 points in a blowout homecourt win over Milwaukee in November, or 14 points in the final regular season game at Milwaukee, when the starters were rested, but he mostly – with one notable exception – he had to settle for garbage time minutes.
The difference this time around appears to be his self-confidence, the result of a summer of hard work and the hard lessons learned from what he views as a disappointing regular season.
"The game is slowing down for me," he said following Monday's practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "I can get out and run and do those things, but in the halfcourt set the whole game is slowing down. That comes with time and repetition. That's not something I had last year. The game is so fast, but a lot of things are slowing down for me and I'm just taking my time and playing good basketball."
"Last year if I was in the same situation I'd be a little timid and play more off others. This year I'm confident and I go out there stress-free and continue to play the way I have been. My teammates have confidence in me. I've played well the whole camp and they see that, so they give me energy, they give me confidence."
Confidence, you can easily tell, goes to the heart of Robinson's challenge. He's lacked it in the past, and seems to have it now, a hard-won quality after last season's challenges.
He was injured at the start of the season, and later lost playing time after coach Frank Vogel shifted to a bigger lineup to accommodate Turner's emergence. Miles was hurt during the middle portion of the season, but Solomon Hill hit stride to absorb those wing minutes.
Hill, though, taught Robinson by example to keep working hard in practice, and to be patient. And Robinson admits he squandered his best opportunity to earn playing time. Vogel started him for four games on a January road trip through Denver, Phoenix, Golden State and Sacramento. He played an average of 18.5 minutes in those games, but averaged just 5.5 points on 29 percent shooting.
Looking back, he knows now what he would do differently.
"You're a starter, you have a green light, you have to take advantage of those opportunities," he said. "I wouldn't necessarily get up more shots, but I would look to be more aggressive, look to make more plays.
"I was just trying to fit in, trying not to make mistakes, but you can't play like that. I play my best basketball when I'm not thinking, just being in attack mode and going."
Robinson's bolder approach was obvious on the first day of training camp, after Coach Nate McMillan had laid out his starting lineup and bench rotation to the media. The starters were going to be Paul George, Myles Turner, Thad Young, Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis, with Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Al Jefferson and Aaron Brooks getting regular minutes off the bench.
McMillan allowed that he might expand his regular rotation to a 10th player, but indicated – and still does – that Allen would get that spot. That left the likes of Robinson having to wait for a blowout or injury to get game minutes.
Robinson didn't like hearing that. Not after putting in a diligent off-season in which he averaged 15.6 points in Summer League play in Orlando and worked out diligently with a personal trainer, getting up 1,000 shots per day and improving his body.
"I was kind of upset when they put out that quote," he said. "(McMillan and I) talked about it. He said he had his nine or 10 written in stone. I said I didn't agree with that. I kind of went back at him. I took that and put that chip on my shoulder."
McMillan's early stance was understandable. George obviously will get most of the minutes at the "three" position. Miles, an 11-year veteran, was a logical choice for first crack at the backup minutes. And while Robinson had showed plenty of promise, he hadn't yet earned a guarantee of game minutes.
Miles' injury has opened the door, and it's going to be awfully difficult for McMillan to close it once Miles returns. McMillan said Monday Miles is day-to-day, but isn't expected to practice on Tuesday and a return date is unknown. He appears to be improving, McMillan said, and there's no structural damage.
Meanwhile, Robinson happily plays on, for an average of 23.4 minutes per game in the preseason, with more to come on Wednesday.
"He's been playing solid basketball," McMillan said. "Offensively he's shooting the ball extremely well, defensively he's making the effort to learn how to be a defender in this league. I just see a guy who's hungry for an opportunity, he's making the most out of (it) and he's doing some good things.
"Maturity, growth and wanting that opportunity has lit a fire. He knows he has to compete for minutes, and even if he does get minutes he knows he has to be productive to stay on the floor."
What happens when Miles returns?
"We're going to see when C.J. comes back where he's at and where the team's at," McMillan said. "We'll make the decision based off of that."
In other words, if the team is winning and Robinson is playing well, McMillan has a tough decision to make.
"It's the nature of the game," George said. "Guys go down, guys get hurt. Glenn's been playing phenomenal. He's going to fill that role until C.J. gets back, then that decision becomes Nate's."
George can relate to Robinson's situation, and in fact, sees a lot of himself in the 22-year-old trying to establish himself in the NBA. They are similar athletes, and both left college after their sophomore years to enter the NBA draft. George, though, adapted more quickly and got more opportunity on a rebuilding team. George, by his nature, possesses more confidence, and he's trying to pass that on to his protege.
"I try to challenge him as much as I can," George said. "He's been doing a wonderful job with that. Every practice has been intense. Me and him have been going at it. It's been fun.
"Nate has given confidence to him. That's all it's been, having confidence on that floor. Make plays. If you have the shot take it, if you don't move it. That's really all a guy needs."
Robinson laughs slightly when asked if McMillan has given him confidence. He gives assistants Dan Burke and Popeye Jones credit for that. McMillan, he said, alternately praises him and corrects him.
"He's doing his job," Robinson said of the head coach.
And Robinson, it seems, has been doing his job. Which means he expects to hang on to it.
"Things happen in this league," he said. "Unfortunately, C.J.'s injury has allowed me to step up and play these minutes. But I definitely would be disappointed if I wasn't in that rotation. I definitely deserve it – at least deserve a shot."
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