As last summer dragged on, Nate Robinson wasn’t worried about finding an NBA job.
If he didn’t end up playing for the Bulls this season, there was a backup plan in place.
“I was going to go play football, so it really didn’t matter to me,” Robinson said with a straight face.
That’s not really a far-fetched scenario.
Robinson started out with a football scholarship at the University of Washington. He started six games at cornerback as a freshman and grabbed 2 interceptions, before focusing on basketball.
His father, Jaques, was a Rose Bowl hero at running back for the Huskies.
“Yeah, I was going to try out (for an NFL team),” Robinson said. “I was trying to go try out for the Seahawks during the lockout. If no team wanted me to play basketball, I was going to play football.”
The 5-foot-9 Robinson ended up signing with the Bulls on July 31. So he didn’t have to wait too long and he said a couple other teams were interested. But he did end up signing a minimum-salary contract that wasn’t fully guaranteed.
Now that he’s played half a season, it’s probably safe to say few people imagined Robinson making such an impact with the Bulls.
He’s averaging 11.5 points on the year, but he has really turned up the intensity — scoring in double figures for eight straight games. In the last four games, he’s been amazing, averaging an even 20 points and 4 assists, while shooting 57 percent from the field.
He took on Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings — probably the next in line for an Eastern Conference all-star slot — and led the Bulls to a convincing 104-88 victory Wednesday at the Bradley Center.
“The good outweighs the bad,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s a catalyst. He’s a sparkplug. The thing I like right now is I think he’s really improved defensively.”
Instead of an erratic, boisterous, mistake-prone guard — which he’s been at times in his career — Robinson has been a perfect example of what Thibodeau’s team is all about. He plays with all-out effort and fits right in with guys like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.
After the win in Milwaukee, Noah talked about his previous impressions of Robinson.
“I knew that he had a lot of energy and was always talking a lot of trash,” Noah said. “Spending time with him, he’s a great teammate. He’s playing great basketball. The last couple weeks, he’s brought his intensity and he’s really channeled his energy the right way, not getting down on himself when things aren’t going well. Just being aggressive offensively, being aggressive defensively. He’s been huge for us.”
Maybe some teams were nervous about signing Robinson. But Thibodeau coached him for half a season in Boston, which included a trip to the Finals in 2010. There’s been little question that Thibodeau was a believer.
“Coach Thibs called me and was like, ‘We’d love to have you here. We’ll have a meeting, sit down, chat.’ I took it as a sign from God,” Robinson said. “He said he wanted me, had big plans, so I’m here.
“There were a couple other teams, but I played for Thibs before when I was in Boston. On top of that, playing for he Bulls,; Michael Jordan, my favorite player ever to play the game. So I was like, ‘Man, I would love to play for the Bulls.’
“On top of that, D-Rose, Joakim — you have so many great guys here. I was like, ‘Why not?’ How can you turn something like this down?”
Thibodeau seems to understand how to get the best out of Robinson. Basically, let him go. When he gets on a roll, Robinson might take some quick shots, throw some questionable passes or talk too much on the court.
Then there are nights like Wednesday, when he scored 16 points in the second quarter. Or last week against Golden State when he scored 22 points in 21 minutes.
“I told myself (recently) to go back to just being Nate, having fun and bringing the energy and playing as hard as I can,” he said. “Not worry about making mistakes or looking over my shoulder. Just play as hard as I can for as long as I can. I went back to my old ways and it’s working for me.”
It’s been working for everyone.
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