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Is Jerome Robinson turning the corner?

The second-year guard has displayed newfound competence in recent games.

Los Angeles Clippers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

I am hoping that this post does not immediately become a “freezing cold take,” but there’s a decent chance it will.

Still, considering the frequency and intensity with which Jerome Robinson has drawn criticism this season (and my own contributions to that criticism), I think it’s only fair to point out what I’ve seen in the last few games: the second-year lottery pick might be turning the corner.

He doesn’t look like a star. Hell, he doesn’t even look like “hey, he might grow into a star someday.” But after spending much of the season playing at a level far below what the Clippers might expect from a replacement-level G-League guard, Robinson’s recent five-game stint in the rotation has exhibited above-replacement-level competence. In fact, from where I sit, he’s been better than Rodney Mcgruder in recent days—although given McGruder’s own disappointing season, that’s a somewhat low bar to clear.

Robinson has played 12 minutes per game this season, making 37 appearances, which might lead some to believe that he’s had a relatively consistent minor rotation role. That actually isn’t the case, though: filling more of a garbage time/injury replacement role, Robinson has either not played, or played less than 10 minutes, in 22 of the Clippers’ 44 games thus far. Those 37 “appearances” include 14 seconds against the Phoenix Suns, 1:12 against the Charlotte Hornets, 48 seconds against the Utah Jazz, and a number of other times when he was simply thrown in at the end of an out-of-reach game.

To look at Jerome’s actual rotation chances, I want to focus more closely on the two stretches this season when he’s gotten double-digit minutes for several games in a row, giving him a chance to (somewhat) exist within a consistent role for a week or two. This isn’t a perfect measure by any means, and it actually excludes his best individual game, a 21-point outing in a 49-point win against the Hawks, but I think it sheds some light on the arc of Robinson’s season.

The first of these two stretches game in late November and early December, when the Clippers struggled with injury and Jerome averaged 15 minutes per game across a 10-game stretch. He was horrible offensively in these games. In total, he had 13 assists—7 of which came in the first two games. He shot just 4-25 (16%) from three-point range, and frankly didn’t do much better from inside the arc, shooting just 28.3% from the field over that same stretch. Defensively, though, Robinson surprisingly passed the eye test and actually averaged a +/- of +2.5 over the trip. Now, that’s not to say that Jerome actually helped the Clippers during these games (they did go 8-2, with 6 of the wins and both losses being by double digits, fudging the importance of +/-), but it’s at least an indication that by and large, the team was able to survive when he was on the floor. Being competent defensively isn’t a small thing, either: a lot of young guards struggle with it, and Jerome in particular was expected to be a poor defender.

Still, for a player whose calling card is his multi-dimensional scoring (with an emphasis on his three-point shot), it was a stretch of play that had many, including myself, ready to write Robinson off as a failed draft pick.

His recent play, however, should inspire a bit more optimism. In his last five games back in the Clippers’ rotation, Jerome has continued his solid defensive play and started to mix in the very beginnings of what looks like it could be regained offensive confidence. In 17 minutes per game, he’s averaging 3.2 points, 2.8 assists, and 2.6 rebounds. The scoring is definitely still low, but averaging near 3 assists and 3 rebounds per game in 17 minutes is very solid for a backup shooting guard, and the defensive competence he had displayed earlier in the season seems to be beginning to spread into other areas of his game. He’s also made four of his ten three-point attempts during this stretch.

Normally, I wouldn’t make a fuss over such a small sample size, but for Jerome, it could be significant. First of all, let’s establish something: Jerome can shoot the basketball. He shot 40.9% from three his last year at Boston College, and 41.2% in the G-League last year (on over 7 attempts per game). He isn’t Landry Shamet from beyond the arc, but there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to take and make open three-point shots in the NBA. But, for a second-year player who has struggled to get opportunities, the problem this season appears to be mental: he hit a massive cold stretch earlier in the year, and began to pass up open shots regularly. This was perhaps best exemplified in a game against the Golden State Warriors, when injured Warriors guard Steph Curry simply yelled at Robinson as he prepared to shoot, and Jerome passed on what would have been a wide-open shot:

Someone who is capable of being scared off of a shot like that is not in the right mindset to make the ones that he actually does take. That’s why, earlier this week, I tweeted this after a Robinson miss:

The most crucial thing for Robinson right now is to continue cultivating that confidence. Playing strong defense and making winning plays (via assists and rebounds) helps. Doc Rivers playing him consistently (not when the team is fully healthy, of course, but it helps for Jerome to know where he is in the pecking order and not be jostling with Derrick Walton Jr. and Terance Mann) helps. Making 4-10 threes over his last five games helps, though he’ll need to take them at a higher rate as his confidence grows.

This is not to say that Jerome Robinson was the right pick over Michael Porter Jr. I’m not making a grand prediction about where his career will (or won’t) go. But from a very localized perspective, there’s reason to be optimistic that Robinson is growing into a steady depth option before our very eyes, and considering where he was at as a player six weeks ago, that’s not nothing. And the ramifications of his growth could be immediate: if the Clippers need to include a smallish contract to facilitate a trade in the coming weeks, I would think that Robinson’s recent play, combined with Rodney McGruder’s egregious struggles on both ends this season, would make the decision about which to include a more contentious discussion than I would have previously thought.