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Neal Rothschild: The Glenn Robinson III conundrum

Adam Glanzman/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 1, 2013

Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein has plenty of good players, but they don’t fit cleanly into the positions in his offense. And as the biggest, most versatile wing on a deep Michigan attack, sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III has to play out of position, where he’s not as threatening and not as comfortable.

Last April, Robinson held court in a crowded news conference in the Crisler Center media room. He announced that he’d return to school the following year for his sophomore season, passing up the NBA Draft where he was projected to be a top-15 pick.

“I feel like I haven’t really shown everybody what I can do on the basketball court,” Robinson said.

And there was a reason behind that.

Robinson had played the 2012-13 season at the ‘4,’ a position similar to the power forward that, in the Beilein offense, demands passivity. The ‘4,’ as Robinson plays it, awaits his opportunities. He doesn’t generate possessions but finishes them, depending on the guards’ decisions on a given play. The ‘4’ hangs out in the corners, waiting for the wings to penetrate and attract attention, looking for a pass. The ‘4’ crashes the boards for put-backs and makes backdoor cuts for alley-oops, layups and short jump shots. The ‘4’ waits for his chances, he doesn’t create them.

With Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas in the backcourt, it made sense for the bigger, 6-foot-6, 220-pound Robinson to find his way into the starting lineup as the ‘4.’ But when he made his decision in April, he was intent on moving to the ‘3’ this season. At the new position where he could create his own shot and drive to the rim consistently, he’d be able to showcase all he could do on the court.

Beilein understood this. He knew the player with the highest ceiling needed to be given the chance to shine, and he said so.

“We’ve always envisioned him to be the ‘3’ man,” Beilein said last April.

That couldn’t happen last year because it was more a matter of, “How do we get our best five guys on the floor as much as possible?”

Reasonable enough. So this season, Robinson would play the ‘3.’ It wasn’t a deal, per se, because Beilein has too much integrity to pull something like that, but it seemed like an unspoken agreement. To reward his star player who had foregone the pros to return to school, Robinson would get to play the ‘3,’ where he could flash his offensive creativity and flex his abilities beyond jaw-dropping dunks.

Trouble was, it’s not that simple. The Wolverines still had to find a way to get the best five guys on the floor, and the way to do that was to keep Robinson at the ‘4.’ Michigan’s depth lies with its backcourt and not its frontcourt. For Robinson to play the ‘3,’ two big men need to start, but outside of sophomore forward Mitch McGary, no other big is among the team’s best five.

In Michigan’s exhibitions earlier this year, Beilein tried to make the two-big-man set-up work. With McGary out, redshirt junior Jon Horford and fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan started, and as expected, Robinson flourished at the ‘3,’ exploding for 33 points on 12-for-15 shooting in a 117-44 victory over Concordia. He’d score an efficient 15 points the next game against Wayne State.

Then the five-best-guys-on-the-floor issue reared itself as the regular season was set to begin. Sophomore guard Caris LeVert played so well in the preseason that Beilein couldn’t keep him out of the starting lineup. The best five players were freshman point guard Derrick Walton, LeVert, Stauskas, Robinson and McGary. Not much dispute about it.

So for the rest of the season, barring injury, Robinson’s stuck at the ‘4.’ To shoe-horn Robinson into the ‘3’ requires a two-big-man set, something Beilein doesn’t see as anything more than a situational option.

The philosophical problem is that the interests of the guy that could potentially be Michigan’s best player don’t align with the interests of the team.

Robinson certainly won’t voice displeasure with the situation. He’s said that he’s willing and happy to play wherever is best for the team. Whether he is the consummate team guy and is willing to sacrifice a great deal of production for the good of the team, or if he’s simply providing lip service, is open to interpretation.