On the radio this week, Suns' President of Basketball Operations, Lon Babby, was asked if there was anything physically wrong with Robin Lopez. No, he said, he was unaware of anything wrong with the 22-year-old center who's had a disappointing year by all accounts.
"You know, it's been a little rough," Lopez said when asked how he feels about his season. "I'm just trying to go out there and work right now."
The numbers are down and his production has not returned to the level he was at last season when Lopez exploded on to the scene with his strong play in 31 starts for the Suns.
Last season, according to Synergy Sports Tech data, Lopez was ranked in the top three percent of the league in offensive rebounding scoring efficiency, recording 23 percent of his points on putbacks. As the roll man on pick-and-rolls, Lopez connected on 69 percent of his attempts, which rivaled Amare Stoudemire.
This season, the numbers have dropped considerably on both accounts. The only improvement is in his spot-up game, which improved from 40 percent last season to an excellent 57.5 percent this year.
Those kinds of declines don't just happen, but coach Alvin Gentry isn't sure what went wrong.
"That's probably been the biggest mystery for our team," Gentry said in a recent interview with the Arizona Republic. "I'm not real sure if it's the injury or what, but he hasn't been able to give us the consistent play that we thought we'd be able to get from him."
At the beginning of the season, Gentry admitted that Lopez was still trying to regain his athletic abilities and then just 10 games into the season, he went down with a knee injury caused by a player falling on him. Just four games after coming back from that injury, the Suns had traded for center Marcin Gortat.
Ever since Gortat's arrival, Robin's minutes have declined to the point that he's barely on the floor 13 minutes per game. He might be the starter, but that's only because Gentry likes playing Gortat with the bench unit. Even when Lopez has a solid six minutes to start the game, he rarely comes back in again until the second half, if at all.
Watching film of Robin's above-the-rim play from last season as compared to what he's able to do now, there's really very little question that he's not the same athletic, explosive player that we first saw after the Suns drafted him with the 15th pick in 2008.
"I am. It's definitely there, but it's something I've got to get over," Lopez said when asked if was feeling the lack of explosion in his game.
Lopez suffered an injury to his back late last March that caused nerve damage in his right leg that he says he's still not fully recovered from. Despite what Babby said on the radio, it's not an injury that's fully healed.
"Obviously, it's something I've got to adjust to. My game was kind of based around that (explosiveness). Hopefully, it will come back, but until then, I've got to figure out how to play without that. It will make me a better all-around player."
Why would Babby publicly discount the impact of an injury that so clearly has limited Lopez' progression into the player the organization thought he could be? The obvious answer is that he doesn't want to diminish Robin's value in a potential trade.
However, by not having his player's back, Babby set off a storm of discussion that only fueled an already negative impression fans have of Lopez. They blame him for not being able to play at the same level as last season and most have given up on him.
Radio hosts that afternoon went so far as to say the Suns' failures this season are due to Lopez' inability to play up to the expectation Gentry set before the season when he called the young center the second-most important player on the team behind Steve Nash.
There's nothing unusual about a coach not having trust in a young player, especially one who's struggling to adjust his game and recover from an injury. But in this case, the vibe from the team is different.
Some observers feel Lopez will be traded this summer and hope he'll thrive in a different environment where he's better appreciated and allowed more time to recover from his injury. With less than three full years in Phoenix, Lopez currently holds the third-longest tenure of any Suns' player behind just Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Patience is not something this team has shown much of.
Lopez hopes that, with more time and another offseason of continued work, he will regain his full athletic abilities that made him such a special prospect.
"Even just last week, Mike (assistant athletic trainer Mike Elliott) said that my explosiveness was looking a little improved," he said.
Guys this size who move as well as Lopez don't come around very often. There's a reason the Los Angeles Lakers haven't given up on Andrew Bynum and there's a reason Greg Oden will get plenty of chances to come back to the league. These guys are special, and while Robin's upside isn't as high as Bynum's and Oden's, his combination of size, athleticism, skill and energy is rare.
For Robin's sake, let's hope he gets back what he lost and that he's traded to a team that will show more patience in developing young players. You hate to see anybody not have a fair opportunity to reach their potential.