As they entered the 2008 NBA Draft, the Lopez brothers were both expected to be first round picks. Both coming out of the University of Stanford, though neither looked like Ivy League material. Two seven footers, one with an afro, both with the look of a caveman perplexed by a multi-colored rock? They don’t even look like high school kids, really.
Brook was the more coveted prospect. He was much more polished offensively. He had a variety of hook shots that he would throw at you with either hand, he was strong and athletic, allowing him to succeed in pick and roll situations, he had soft hands, making it easy for him to receive an entry pass, and, perhaps his greatest ability came in the form of a beautiful little 15 foot jump shot. On defense, he was good, not great. He was strong on the boards and was a decent shot blocker, which isn’t bad for a rookie.
Robin didn’t have nearly as pretty of a scouting report, which is a reflection of his game. He didn’t have a go-to move in the post like his brother, heck, he didn’t have much of a move at all in college. Lopez picked up the majority of his points on hustle plays that led him to easy baskets around the rim. Putbacks on misses, scrums from loose balls, a tipped pass, Robin would convert whenever he got the opportunity but those opportunities never came in the form of a post-up. Essentially, his brother was an all-around offensive talent while he was an energetic and athletic rebounder that wouldn’t quit.
Brook and Robin both fell down the draft boards, at least farther than I expected them to. Brook went to the Nets at 10 and his brother followed five picks later when the Suns drafted him.
After one season, the pre-draft assertion that Brook was the better half of the Lopez twins was justified. Brook enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign, averaging 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks a game in 21 minutes a contest. Brook was a candidate for rookie of the year most of the season and ended up with the starting center spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
On the other hand, Robin struggled. Not only did he struggle to produce on the floor but Lopez had trouble getting off of the bench. In 60 games, Robin averaged just 10.2 minutes, three points and two rebounds per contest. With Shaquille O’Neal hogging up the minutes, Lopez was scarcely used even though his play style could have helped the Suns more than Shaq did.
When I attended the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this summer, I saw Brook sitting with his mom, dad, and little sister, watching and cheering for their son/brother as he shined in an expanded role (five second clip of that here). In five games, Lopez averaged 12 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks while shooting 51% from the field. He played the most minutes of any Sun’s Summer Leaguer with 126 and shared his length was effective on the defensive end and on offense in the pick and roll (then with Dragic).
This season, Brook continued to get better. He has gone from great rookie to legitimate contender for the top offensive center in the league. His offensive game expanded and he was more sound defensively. If there was a bright spot on the 12-60 Nets, it was Lopez and his all-star caliber play. Despite having pitiful teammates, Lopez finished with averages of 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks a game.
The other Lopez brother? Well, with Shaq gone, there were minutes available for Robin. However, the Suns opted against giving Lopez the full responsibility of manning the center position when they signed Channing Frye, further complicating their situation in the post. Because Frye morphed into Rashard Lewis -lite during the regular season, knocking down 172 threes (the fourth most in the NBA) Lopez still did not find himself with a consistent role in the offense.
But if you watched Robin for an extended period of time, you were sure to be impressed. No longer was he just a seven footer, he was seven footer with an increasing knowledge of the game, which was dangerous for any team facing off against the Suns.
Though clearly less versatile offensively than Amare Stoudemire, it was Lopez that possessed the Suns best offensive rating, scoring 123 points per 100 possessions. Robin averaged nine more minutes a game this season, leading to increases in all of his major statistics. He went from three points a game to eight, two rebounds a game to five, and from .7 blocks per game to one. Lopez even increased his shooting percentage to 59% with a 62% true shooting percentage. Lopez finished with a PER slightly above 17, putting him ahead of Rudy Gay, Joakim Noah, Tony Parker, Antawn Jamison and Paul Pierce.
Hustle plays and now, thanks to Steve Nash, quite a bit of pick and roll success at the rim led to his increased production. In fact, according to Synergy Sports Technology, Lopez was the ninth best roll man in the league. 21% of his offense came in pick and roll sets (he was involved in the P&R 85 times) and he averaged a stellar 1.31 points per possession. Additionally, Lopez was the fifth best offensive rebounder in the league when it came to getting a bucket after securing an O-board. After 96 offensive rebounds, Robin averaged 1.42 points per possession, accounting for 24% of his overall offense. If there was ever a way to measure hustle and desire through statistics, that number may do the trick.
Despite those terrific and efficient numbers, Lopez’s biggest contribution to the Suns has been his defense. Robin is very, very quick with his feet, waves his long arms to take away passes around him or over him, is a great athlete around the rim, making him a decent shot blocker. Lopez, however unlikely, developed into the Suns’ first solid defensive big man in recent memory, staying active and doing everything he could in order to get a stop. If Amare had the same determination to play defense that Lopez showed this season, there’s no telling how great he’d be.
And now, in the biggest game of his life, 10 months removed from dominating the Summer League with Goran Dragic, Lopez put up perhaps his best game as a pro against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Robin was finishing at the rim, hitting long two-points jumpers that nobody thought he could knock down and he was doing it consistently, he had active hands defensively, and he moved well off-the-ball in order to tire the Lakers bigs out. Lopez had 20 points on eight-of-10 shooting against the best front line in the NBA.
The only issue with Robin in this series has been his playing time. After missing the first two rounds of the playoffs with an injury, Alvin Gentry has been very slow in bringing Lopez back into starters minutes. And that’s hurt the Suns. In the first two games of the series, Lopez scored 21 points on eight-of-11 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds in just 42 minutes. The remaining 54 minutes went to Channing Frye, who, as I documented here, has been nothing but a detriment to the team.
If Lopez can continue to get consistent playing time, the Suns have a chance to make this a series, especially with Frye struggling and Robin coming off of the best game of his career. Lopez brings grit and determination to the court and, as evident by the Oklahoma City series from this year and the Houston Rockets’ series from last season, the Lakers often struggle to match the opposition’s intensity level if they get hit in the mouth early.
Even if Robin isn’t on the court for 90% of the rest of the series, which would really be a critical coaching error by Gentry, next season, he should definitely get those minutes. If Amare opts for free agency, Frye can either start at the center spot and stretch the floor or play the more natural (at least natural to his new playing style) power forward spot, that is, of course, if the Suns haven’t executed him by then, leaving the other spot vacant for Lopez. With 36 minutes a game and Nash running the show, Lopez could be brilliant.
Who’d a thunk it?