Healthy Robin Lopez poised for comeback season

PHOENIX — Last year at this time in the NBA calendar, the Phoenix Suns thought they had found their franchise center, even with Marcin Gortat still languishing in Orlando as Dwight Howard’s caddy.

Robin Lopez, after all, had been a true difference maker in the second half of the season before suffering his back injury, and when he returned in the playoffs he gave the team a puncher’s chance in the conference finals against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, particularly in a dominant Game 3 effort.

Alvin Gentry even went so far as to say Lopez would be the second most important player on the Suns in 2010-11, and then the season began and the Suns suddenly realized their search for a franchise center was back to square one.

Lopez regressed badly last season, losing his vertical leap and along with it his ability to finish inside. Already a weak rebounder, Lopez provided no resistance on the backboards and turned into a jump shooter that provided little else.

Such a turn of events would have been unfathomable during the 2008 draft when the Suns thought they were selecting an athletic, high-energy center without much shooting range.

“I think it was a real frustrating season for him last year,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “He just really couldn’t ever get back to the place that he was in the playoffs the year before and some of the games that he’d had for us. I just think it became really frustrating for him, but the great thing is that he’s back and I think his attitude is great, he seems to just be a lot less stressed than he was last year, and I think obviously if you’re feeling good and you’re healthy and your attitude is really good then I think he’ll be a good player for us.”

The biggest question when it comes to Lopez regards the condition of his back. Lopez did not play like a healthy basketball player last season, especially in comparison to what he had done the year before.

After last season it was fair to wonder whether Lopez needed that full season to return to full health or if he had lost some of the athleticism that had made him such a promising prospect for good.

The early returns are encouraging as Gentry and teammates have raved about how much better Lopez looked during training camp than he did last season, with Gentry calling him “officially healthy now.”

“I think overall Robin is going to be back to where he was two years ago,” Grant Hill said. “He has his explosion and that sort of pop, energy to his game. I think he would admit that wasn’t there consistently last season.”

Added his sparring partner Gortat, “He’s definitely better right now. Physically he got stronger, he’s got more confidence and he’s hungry to play.”

Lopez said he does indeed feel better physically with the back injury being further in his past, but he does not believe his third-year slump can be solely attributed to injuries.

“That wasn’t the only problem, there were also mental problems,” he said, “and I think having this break it gave me a little time just to myself. I feel mentally better, too.”

If Lopez can re-emerge as a force inside it changes everything about the Suns. All of a sudden they would be flush with big man depth and could even trot out lineups involving both Lopez and Gortat in tall ball alignments.

With Markieff Morris looking good early and Channing Frye in the fold as well, a Lopez resurgence could turn a long-time Phoenix weakness into a strength.

It’s an important season for Lopez as well to prove he’s back being that it’s a contract year for him. The Suns can extend a $4,001,917 qualifying offer to Lopez next offseason that would make him a restricted free agent, but if he plays like he did last season that’s not too likely. Robin is not pondering those possibilities, however, saying he’s only thinking about this year.

It’s still a mystery why Lopez regressed so much last season and more importantly whether he can ever regain the athleticism he possessed before the back injury.

Even if he’s back to full strength, with Gortat and Morris in the fold Lopez will not be relied upon to be the savior in the middle as he was last year with Hedo Turkoglu at the four and no legitimate backup center.

But if Robin can contribute 15-20 quality minutes a game, it would change the complexion of this team.

“It becomes really important to us,” Gentry said. “Obviously if he plays much better then that gives us another big guy, and I don’t think you can ever have too many big guys.”

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