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From NBA lottery pick to roster filler, Thomas Robinson gets another shot

Thomas Robinson is on his fifth team since being drafted No. 5 overall in 2012. What's next?

PHILADELPHIA—His locker sits in a corner, a clean, freshly printed 76ers jersey hanging in front of it. It’s a familiar sight for Thomas Robinson. New uniform, new team, new city. Since being plucked by the Kings with the fifth pick in the 2012 draft, Robinson has worn four different uniforms. He has bounced from Sacramento, Houston and Portland, with a nominal stop in Denver before landing in his latest home, Philadelphia, a franchise that wanted him as much for his  salary ($3.7 million) as his game.

How did he get here? How did a once-promising prospect become a vagabond, shuttled from team to team, city to city, treated more like roster filler than a high lottery pick? Sitting in front of his locker, Robinson can only shrug. There is a part of him that wants to unload on his former employers, to publicly eviscerate the parade of general manager's for their lack of faith. But there is another part, a stronger part that understands: What good would it do?

“I could complain about it, but this is just my path,” Robinson said. “It’s the hand I have been dealt.”

On paper, Robinson looks like a bust. He's averaged 4.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in 13.6 minutes over his three-year career. But a deeper look at the reasons for his nomadic NBA life reveal something different. Houston liked him, thought he had a future as a high-energy power forward. But the Rockets had bigger eyes for Dwight Howard and needed to move Robinson to clear the cap space to sign him. Robinson had a few fans in Portland, too, but the Blazers had LaMarcus Aldridge entrenched at power forward and had the opportunity to flip Robinson in a package that returned Arron Afflalo, a scoring guard better equipped to help Portland in its championship push. Even Denver liked Robinson; the Nuggets though were set to sign Joffrey Lauvergne, a former second-round pick who was earmarked for minutes at power forward.

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​Sacramento? That was more on the Kings than Robinson. In 2012, the organization was dysfunctional. Ownership was hemorrhaging cash and in the process of selling the team to a group that planned to move the Kings to Seattle. Dealing Robinson saved Sacramento nearly $4 million. It’s true, Robinson’s play was uneven—he averaged 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.9 minutes in 51 games with the Kings—and Sacramento recouped a quality player from Houston in Patrick Patterson. But dealing the No. 5 overall pick on a team going nowhere that season? Giving up on bruising forward with obvious skills less than a year after drafting him? Across the league there was a collective head scratch.

“That was the most frustrating because I didn’t get a chance,” Robinson said. “I heard all the b.s. [about why he was traded]. I don’t know. It didn’t make sense.”

Robinson is no stranger to adversity. Real adversity. In December 2010, Robinson, then a developing sophomore at Kansas, lost his maternal grandfather. A few weeks later, Robinson lost his maternal grandmother. A week after that, in January 2011, Robinson’s mother, Lisa, a single parent who Robinson considered his best friend, died suddenly of a heart attack. It was a string of sudden, unthinkable tragedies that shook Robinson to his core.

He pushed on though, and as a junior finished a breakout season as the Big 12 Player of the Year. It’s why when scouts wonder if Robinson can overcome the mental hurdle that comes from being cast aside so often early in his career, understand: He has been through worse.

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​Admittedly, Philadelphia wasn’t Robinson’s first choice of teams to finish the season. Brooklyn wanted him and for Robinson the feeling was mutual. The Sixers, needing to add another contract to meet the salary floor, had other ideas and claimed Robinson off waivers.

The decision could be a blessing. The Sixers don’t care about winning this season; its most recent deals, including the dumping of reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, are overwhelming proof of that. There are no established stars for Robinson to play behind, opening the door for extended minutes over the final six weeks of the year. On Monday, against Toronto, Robinson posted 13 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes. A sturdy 6’10, 237 pounds, Robinson battled for boards in the paint and showcased a soft touch around the rim.

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“I mean, he’s a bull,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “He fits all the things we like when we identify keepers. It’s a look that we couldn’t pass up. He’s not going to have a better environment to have a legitimate chance to be a legitimate NBA player.”

A free agent this summer, Robinson will likely be wearing another jersey next fall. He will be an interesting name on the market. Teams often grimace at power forwards who don’t block shots or stretch the floor. Robinson likes the midrange jumper but has yet to prove he can consistently make them (32.7% on all jump shots this season). Still, he is a ferocious rebounder with enough untapped potential for someone to take a flier on. And, really, that’s all Robinson wants.

“A chance, man,” Robinson said. “I know what I can do. I’m just keeping it simple here; rebound, defend, get to the open spots. Energy and toughness is my game. That’s who I am as a player right now.”