PHOENIX — There is no doubting that Steve Nash is the engine that makes the Phoenix Suns go. But besides the two-time MVP, no player is more crucial to the success of the 2010-11 Suns than third-year center Robin Lopez.
The seven-footer made huge strides in becoming a legitimate starting NBA center last season, averaging 11.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 24.5 minutes in 31 games as a starter.
Lopez also proved he can hang with the big boys after an impressive Western Conference Finals against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum that earned him ample respect amongst his teammates and peers.
Former Utah Jazz forward and current analyst Matt Harpring recently said during a Suns-Jazz preseason game that, if healthy, Lopez can be a “top four or five center in the league,” and Nash threw around the word “premier” when talking about his big man on media day.
“I think we all have a lot of confidence in Robin. I think he’s turning into a terrific center and can become a premier center in this league,” Nash said. “He’s got to first of all get himself in the kind of shape where he can stay healthy, and if he does that he can just continue to grow and grow and be a bigger piece of our team.”
But with higher production comes higher expectations, and the giant leap from solid-starter to franchise-center needs to come in year three for the undersized Suns to remain successful.
“I still say his size makes him one of the most important guys on our team,” head coach Alvin Gentry said of his big man.
Added Goran Dragic: “I think Robin is going to be a huge factor for us this season.”
With zero rebounders and zero interior defenders in the rotation, Lopez needs to step into those roles and anchor the Suns’ defense while controlling the glass night in and night out.
While he’s proven himself on the defensive end, Lopez has never faced the challenge of being the team’s No. 1 (and only) rebounder like he will this season.
Last year he had Amare Stoudemire and Lou Amundson to control the glass, and didn’t exactly prove to be a rebounding monster — averaging 4.8 boards per game. Although rebounding at a high level remains a concern for Lopez, the biggest question mark lies in his offensive game.
No more Stoudemire means no more low-post presence to balance out the offense, and Gentry and the Suns will lean heavily on the third-year center to fill that void as best as possible.
“We’ve got to continue to find a way for him to play, not get himself in foul trouble, and then become a little bit better offensive player as far as post ups,” Gentry said. “I think in screen and roll situations and things like that, he’s much better than we anticipated anyway, so it’s just a matter of can we throw the ball to him in the post and can he keep pressure on people in the post.”
As Gentry pointed out, Lopez is actually a very good pick-and-roll player. According to Synergy Sports Technology, he ranked ninth in the NBA in points per play (1.3) out of the pick and roll, shooting an impressive 67.6 percent.
He’s a little too slow and lacks the explosion to be relied on consistently as a roll man, but if used in the right situations, Lopez can be a huge help in that department.
The biggest question, however, is whether or not Lopez can be effective out of the low post. According to last season, that answer is an emphatic “no.”
Lopez averaged 0.71 points per play and shot 41.8 percent out of post ups last season, which was worse than any other play type other than isolations. He just hasn’t developed the left and right jump hook or turnaround jump shot needed to stand out in the post.
And he certainly isn’t a good passer — 15 career assists — so he’s very predictable when he catches it on the block.
But to provide some type of optimism, Lopez showed flashes in Game 3 of the West Finals when he went 8-for-10 from the field to score 20 points in 30 minutes of play.
Here are some of the moves Lopez showcased in that game:
This wasn’t exactly a back-to-the basket, low post isolation, but it was almost even more impressive. For a seven-footer to catch the ball at the elbow and turn two dribbles into a spin middle and a left-handed hook says a lot about Lopez’ potential.
This is basically a mirror image of the last play, with Lopez catching the ball at the elbow and putting it on the floor. This clearly isn’t how the Suns plan to give Lopez opportunities, as he’ll be catching it on the block with his back to the basket.
But the moves he’s finishing with are certainly applicable to the low post. Here he goes at Lamar Odom, jump stops with his shoulders to the baseline and uses his length and left shoulder to shield the ball as he rises up for a jump hook — this time with the right hand — that he buries.
Lopez shows his shooting touch here as he knocks down a free-throw line jumper with ease. No, this isn’t a post move, but it opens up the post game a lot more — remember what a consistent jump shot did to Amare Stoudemire’s game?
Word has also surfaced that Lopez can now knock down this 15-footer fairly consistently, which would be momentous in his quest for a well-rounded offensive game.
But as it stands, Lopez still hasn’t proved that he can be consistently leaned upon to score down low. It’s nice to know that he has the ability to put together post moves like he showed in Game 3 agains the Lakers, but finishes like that were a rarity for the big man, and his offensive game is far from polished.
With the season right around the corner and zero help up front, Suns fans will find out real soon whether or not Lopez can be that “premier” center he’s expected to be, not only on the offensive end, but defensively and on the glass.
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