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Robinson III Brings Intrigue to Pacers Roster

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

First of all, he's a nice kid … or nice man … whatever it is you want to call a 21-year-old professional basketball player who's quiet, polite and self-assured.

The people who know him will regale you with stories about his generosity and kindness. How he put other kids' lunches on his charge card in high school when they didn't have enough money. How he always tried to get his teammates involved in games and practices, and offered rides home after practice. How he rode with his coach to watch a younger player in an AAU game in Kokomo, just to be there. How he makes it a point to work with the grade school kids when he visits his high school coach's summer program.

All the niceties of Glenn Robinson III's character and personality won't keep him in the NBA, however. That requires genetics, talent, work ethic and timing. Robinson was born with the first of those elements, gives ample evidence of having acquired the second and third, and appears to have the fourth after a false start to his career as a rookie.

All of which makes him the most intriguing player on the Pacers' roster. It's getting so his name automatically brings up that word, "intriguing," in conversation and in broadcasts, and no wonder. He's obviously loaded with the ammunition of physical potential, and apparently has the internal substance to propel it. Through five preseason games he's their second-leading scorer, averaging 11.2 points on 56 percent shooting, including 54 percent of his three-point attempts, while playing a team-high 23 minutes per game. He's also hit 13-of-15 foul shots and committed less than one turnover per game.

The numbers suggest there's a lot to like about the former second-round draft pick who was rejected by two NBA teams as a rookie and came to the Pacers via the bargain bin. Ask around the locker room, in fact, and like doesn't seem to cover it.

What do you think of him, George Hill?

"I love the kid. Any Indiana kid, I love. Not just because of (being from) Indiana. I think he's playing extremely well now, shooting well, defending well. He has a lot of upside. He's still young and still learning. For years to come, he can be a great asset to us."

What do you think of him, Paul George?

"I love the kid. I've been able to spend the whole summer with him. He was completely different when he first came in. Now it's coming around for him. He's going to be good. He's going to be real good."

*

This kid they love, the one who's coming around, the guy with so much upside, has a reputation as a bit of a late-bloomer. He wasn't the best player on the teams of his youth, wasn't offered a scholarship by a major college program until after his sophomore season at Lake Central High School – which by today's frenzied recruiting standards qualifies as late – and wasn't drafted until the 40th pick of the NBA draft.

That qualifies as ironic, since he got such an early start on life.

"The doctors had prepared me for the worst. Nobody knew what was going on. They told me all of the bad things and what could happen. But none of it happened."

Shantelle Clay, Robinson III's Mother

He made a surprising and dramatic entrance to the world on Jan. 8 1994, three months premature. His mother, Shantelle Clay, had gone home for Christmas break during her freshman year at Purdue, thinking her pregnancy was on schedule. Her due date was to conflict with final exams, and she was planning to talk with professors to see if she could take them early. Those plans changed quickly.

"I remember going to the restroom, and after that I couldn't stop peeing," she said. "They had to rush me to the hospital.

"I don't know, he was just ready to come out. It was crazy."

Robinson was named after his father, Glenn Robinson, a Purdue junior who was on his way to becoming the college player of the year and the first pick in the NBA draft. He weighed 3 pounds, 4 ounces at birth, and began life in an incubator, where he stayed for more than a month. (Somewhere in the family archives there's a photo of Robinson II holding his son in the palm of his hand.) He was confined to the hospital for two months before he could go home with his mother.

Premature births bring a heightened risk of a variety of health problems, and often result in decreased height and weight throughout life. Clay was warned of all that, and was promised nothing.

"The doctors had prepared me for the worst," she says. "Nobody knew what was going on. They told me all of the bad things and what could happen. But none of it happened."

Robinson began playing basketball at age three, and stuck with it. He played football in school, too, mostly because of his mother's encouragement. He was a tall receiver, athletic and skilled, good enough to play on the junior varsity team as a freshman, but didn't particularly enjoy it.

"I just wanted to go out there and catch the ball, but they would have us hitting and all," he says. "I didn't like that."

That was his personality. He preferred to blend in rather than stand out, preferred finesse over physical play, preferred to get along rather than hit someone. That carried over to basketball as well. He was athletic and reasonably skilled, but didn't shoot well and tended to fade into the background. He was, he says, never "that guy," who teammates looked for to score or to lead.

That was doubly troubling because he was destined to face public scrutiny. Carrying the name of his father, who went on to play in 11 NBA seasons and make two All-Star teams, he couldn't hide. He was an easy target for opposing fans. By the time he reached high school, students from other schools were chanting things like "Dad-dy's bet-ter!"

There were times, he admits, he wished he had been given a different first name.

"My dad being so good, everybody had that same expectation of me," he said. "When I was young, having the same name, sometimes I did resent it."

But not for long, and certainly not now. He had shown initiative even as a little kid, shoveling off the driveway to shoot on cold winter days, or begging his mother to come out and play with him. The name gave him something to try to grow into, a goal to achieve in a sense. It also encouraged coaches to work with him and attracted the attention of recruiters.

"People thought, 'He has potential, he has the genes, let's get it out of him,'" Robinson says.

Robinson began a routine of shooting and working out at 5:30 a.m. on school days as a freshman at Lake Central, when he started on the JV team. He needed the work, because at that time he shot with two hands. Early on, when a coach came by to pick him up, he would have to rush around and gather his belongings, making the coach wait for five minutes or so. By his sophomore year, when he became a starter on the varsity team, he was always on time. He put up 500-700 shots each day. Either a coach would rebound for him, or he'd use a shooting gun that automatically returned balls to him. He'd stay after practice, too, usually the last one to leave the gym, working to live up to his name and to fulfill his potential.

Purdue coach Matt Painter, a college teammate of Robinson II, was the first Big Ten coach through the Lake Central doors during Robinson's sophomore season, but had no scholarship to offer at the time. Robinson and his mother visited the campus, and had lunch at a pizza restaurant with Painter and assistant coach Jack Owens in West Lafayette one day, where Painter spelled out his recruiting situation. He told them he wanted to stay in touch, because something could always change in the fickle recruiting world.

Michigan's assistant coach Jeff Meyer scouted a game later that season at Chesterton High School, where he had gone to scout Mitch McGary. Robinson, a slender 6-4 at the time, scored 16 points and caught Meyer's eye as well. He was offered a scholarship the following summer, and Robinson grabbed it in September, before Michigan's scholarships were gone, too. By his senior year he was ranked among the top 40 players in the country, and was an honor roll student as well.

At Michigan, Robinson was part of a top 10 recruiting class that included McGary and Nik Stauskas. He started his first game for the Wolverines, and stayed in the lineup all the way through to the championship game of the NCAA tournament, where Michigan lost to Louisville. Robinson scored 12 points in that one, completing an impressive freshman season. He was projected as a first-round draft pick because he reflected so much potential, but he and McGary jointly decided to return for their sophomore seasons.

Tellingly, Robinson turned down an invitation to try out for the FIBA Under-19 World Championship team that summer to attend two skills camps, one featuring Kevin Durant and the other LeBron James. His focus was on improvement more than recognition or achievement.

Michigan won the Big Ten and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament Robinson's sophomore season before losing a three-point game to Kentucky. He averaged 13.1 points and was voted honorable mention all-Big Ten for the second consecutive year, but suddenly seemed like old news to NBA scouts. His stats hadn't improved, and his willingness to blend in was a concern – his coaches had nicknamed him "Light Rob" because he tended to score quiet points. His three-point percentage – .308 – raised questions about his ability to perform on the perimeter.

"He's not the guy who's going to walk in a room and draw attention to himself. He tends to blend in. It's something coaches like. It makes for being a great teammate."

Dave Milausnic, Robinson III's High School Coach

Blending in, though, could have been viewed as an asset. Robinson was surrounded by future NBA talent at Michigan. His freshman season's roster included Trey Burke, the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player and first-team All-American, and Tim Hardaway Jr., a first-team All-Big Ten selection. Both were first-round draft picks. His sophomore teammates included Stauskas, the Big Ten MVP, and McGary. Again, both were first-round draft picks.

Robinson, perhaps, would have been drafted higher if he had cared more about his scoring. Michigan, probably, wouldn't have won as many games if he had. The NBA, however, is no place for cautious players unwilling to step up when needed, and Robinson's gentle demeanor fed into that perception.

"He's the type of guy who likes to keep a tight circle," his high school coach, Dave Milausnic said. "He's not a guy I ever worried about on a Friday night. He's laid-back, but he's outgoing with his closest friends.

"He's not the guy who's going to walk in a room and draw attention to himself. He tends to blend in. It's something coaches like. It makes for being a great teammate."

*

Dropping to the 40th pick, where Minnesota finally called his name, was a surprise to many and a disappointment to him. He hadn't tested quite as well as he could have in the pre-draft combine in Chicago, recording a "mere" 41-inch vertical jump instead of 44, and the concerns over his shooting lingered.

His first appearance with the Timberwolves was in the opening preseason game against the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He played 12 minutes, scored six points on 3-of-4 shooting, and had three assists, two rebounds, a steal and no turnovers. Pacers president Larry Bird took notice and made it a point to keep an eye on Robinson throughout the season. But there wasn't much to see. The rookie played in just 25 of 60 games with Minnesota, receiving double-figure minutes just once, when he scored seven points at San Antonio.

He was caught in purgatory. The Timberwolves had injuries and needed him on their roster in case of emergency, so he couldn't go play in the Development League. Yet they also had No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins at small forward, as well as other young players, so he didn't get playing time with them.

Finally, he was released, a move that stunned him. Philadelphia signed him, sat him for eight of the next nine games, but let him play in seven of the final 10. Playing a season-high 36 minutes, he finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and three assists in the final game, against Miami. He averaged just 4.4 points in his 10 appearances with the 76ers, but perhaps someone should have taken note of this: although they lost nine of those 10 games, he managed a slight plus in the plus-minus rankings.

Philly released him after the season. He caught on with Atlanta's Summer League team, joining after the first game had already been played. He averaged 11.8 points over six games, scoring 23 points in one 21-minute appearance. Most notably, perhaps, he showed an improved shooting touch, hitting 43 percent of his three-point shots.

With interest among NBA executives perking up, Bird swept in and made a commitment, offering a three-year contract Robinson says is guaranteed for the first year-and-a-half. Through five preseason games, that decision looks increasingly prescient. But his teammates and coaches, who saw him in the intrasquad scrimmages leading into training camp, aren't surprised.

"What he showed in September is that he's real," coach Frank Vogel said. "He's not a couple-years- away guy. We have guys ahead of him probably, but there were days in September when he was the best player on the court. That was very, very impressive to me. He's got a great attitude, and he's got all the physical tools with the speed and athleticism. He has the tools to be a steal."

Perhaps the sample size isn't large enough to draw a firm conclusion, but it appears Robinson might have solved his greatest obstacle to playing time, perimeter shooting. He put in time with shooting coach Hal Wissel over the summer, and corrected a few flaws: his release point is higher, he puts more arch on his shot and he doesn't fade backward on his release.

That 54 percent three-point percentage on 13 attempts indicates he's on the right path.

"I've seen improvements," he said. "Right now I have a lot of confidence in shooting it well. I thought I was a good shooter before, but the little tweaks should help the consistency.

"Defensively, I think I'm there. That's what's going to get me some time. I can run the floor and jump and be athletic, but if I can make that outside shot I'll be a great asset to this team."

Pacers assistant Dan Burke, the team's defensive coordinator, agrees. Defensively, Robinson is there already.

"He's got really good foot speed and his natural instincts are to stay in front of the guy," Burke said. "It looks easy for him. Almost every time he's on a guy, that guy has to go to a second move, which for us is key. You never want to let a guy get a one-dribble, one move blow by."

Robinson's demeanor will be a factor as well. He'll need to blend in, of course, being surrounded by more proven NBA veterans, but he'll need to step up and stand out when given the opportunity, too. His personality is much more like his mother's than his father's.

Glenn Robinson II came from the hard streets of Gary. He once told a Sports Illustrated reporter he was able to walk both sides of them, meaning he could relate to a wide spectrum of people. He is still respected by people who knew him at Purdue, popular with his coaches and teammates.

"I love the kid. I've been able to spend the whole summer with him. He was completely different when he first came in. Now it's coming around for him. He's going to be good. He's going to be real good."

Paul George

On the court, however, nobody questioned his toughness. They called him "Big Dawg" for a reason. He tried to dominate everyone, and didn't mind woofing about it while he was doing it. Brandon Brantley, his Purdue teammate, recalls a summer pickup game in Gary after Robinson's final season at Purdue in which Robinson scored all eight points of the game on him.

"I'm literally hanging on this guy," Brantley recalled. "I'm playing good D and he gives me all eight points. After the game I'm all mad. Later on he said, 'I didn't like the way you walked in the gym; you walked in like this is your high school gym."

Robinson III isn't like that, on the court or off.

"Sometimes I can see some of (father) Glenn in him, but my Glenn, he's different," Shantelle Clay says. "He's so nonchalant. Nothing bothers him."

Robinson III's younger brother, Gelen, also fathered by Robinson II, is more like his father. Robinson III clearly got his demeanor genes from Mom. He never got in trouble in school, has never been in a fight, doesn't have a mean bone in his body. Which doesn't mean he doesn't play hard.

"That's definitely what he's had to fight with the coaches," Clay said. "They don't think he's as physical and aggressive as he should be. I'm different. I think a lot of them like the 'rough, tough' but then when you get the 'rough, tough' they have a problem with that. I see him playing with all his heart out there."

The trick now for Robinson III will be to amp up and maintain aggression during games, being physical enough without losing his finesse. He says he feels a connection with San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, another quiet, self-contained but highly effective player.

"One thing about me, I'm very unselfish," he said. "I love to get everyone else involved in the game. It's just picking and choosing my time, when to be aggressive.

"I'm finding different ways to bring that dog out of me on the court. That's going to get me playing time. Being more aggressive, being more assertive is something I'm always looking to do. I do have some of my dad in me, I just have to get it out of me."

Although Robinson II has never been part of his son's household, he's had a positive impact on his career. He, like Mom, never pressured his son to play basketball. And when he came to watch his son's games or practices, he kept quiet and never interfered with the coaches.

"I've known his dad a long time," said Milausnic, who played against Robinson in high school. "When (Glenn III) was really starting to come on, Glenn asked me if he could watch him shoot before school. He just walked in, watched, and said thanks for putting all the time you're putting in.

"That's one of the best conversations I've ever had with a parent. His dad has been extremely supportive. He could have come in and said, 'You need to do this or do that.' He just wanted his son to be happy."

*

Robinson III is happy. He's wearing his fourth NBA jersey in a year, but believes he's in the right place to advance his career. He'll have plenty of cooperation at the wing positions, with veterans George, C.J. Miles, Solomon Hill and Chase Budinger contending for minutes.

Vogel said at the starting of training camp Robinson would likely spend some time in Fort Wayne, playing for the Pacers' D League affiliate. Robinson's play in the preseason to this point would make that a difficult decision. One thing's for sure, though: he won't ride the Pacers' bench as he rode Minnesota's last season. He'll either get steady and meaningful minutes with the Pacers or he'll play in Fort Wayne.

Probably not for long, though, if he continues to progress. He can sit in front of his locker and look 15 feet to his left and see a vision of his future in George. He's a couple of inches shorter than George, but has similar athleticism, skills, motivation and a desire to be coached.

"I can't wait," he said. "I see a guy like Paul George and I know I can get there one day. I just have to keep working. I look at his overall game and how he can do it at both ends of the court and I think that's what lies ahead of me. It's just a matter of getting to that point a couple of years down the road."

George sees it, too.

"I love what he's bringing," George said. "He has a great future. He gets it. He gets it early."

Robinson knows all about being early. He knows about being late, too. Now, perhaps, he's right on time.


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