Liam Robbins hasn’t taken the court for the Gophers yet, but he’s already being considered among the top centers in college basketball.
The 7-foot transfer from Drake was named to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award top 20 preseason watch list Friday by the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“He’s a Big Ten-type player,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said last month. “Obviously, there will be in an adjustment period … But he stood out in practice. I think he’s one of the best transfers in the country.”
What makes Robbins deserving of this distinction even before he played in the Big Ten? Plenty, actually.
There was a reason the Davenport, Iowa native was pursued by more than 20 teams (even blue-blood programs) when he entered the transfer portal in the spring. Fortunately for the Gophers, there was a family connection with his cousin and uncle (walk-on Hunt and assistant Ed Conroy) on the team.
As a Drake sophomore, Robbins tripled his scoring (14.1) and doubled his rebounding (7.1) averages. The All-Missouri Valley second-team center broke Drake’s single-season blocks record with 99, ranking fifth nationally with 2.9 blocks per game.
Defensively his impact was exceptional at the mid-major level, but his offensive improvement was just as impressive. He went from three to 26 games scoring in double figures from his first to second year, including six games with at least 20 points in 2019-20. A career-best 29 points on 9-for-12 field goals and 10-for-11 free throws came against Bradley in February.
This summer’s Last Dance documentary highlighted Michael Jordan’s “Flu Game” for the Chicago Bulls against the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals. Robbins had his own version: 20 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks in 31 minutes battling stomach flu in a win vs. Loyola-Chicago in January.
Like MJ, Robbins said he ate some bad pizza the night before. But that didn’t stop him from pushing through for one of the most memorable performances from him to date.
“I went to the hospital and had IVs in me all day,” Robbins told the Star Tribune in the summer. “Doctors said I probably shouldn’t play, but I had to tough it out to play.”
Replacing Daniel Oturu’s 20 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks per game wouldn’t be realistic for any big man taking over the Gophers’ starting center job this season.
But there are Oturu-like attributes that Robbins brings to the table. He’s obviously an accomplished rim protector. But he can also stretch the floor offensively. He had seven games last year with at least one three-pointer, including a career-best 3-for-5 from beyond the arc against powerhouse Dayton.
Rebounding at a high level is where Robbins can make the most growth. But at 240 pounds, he's physically strong enough to make the Gophers highly optimistic about his transition from mid-major star to one of the best Big Ten big men.
Take one glimpse at the Kareem watch list and you'll notice the Big Ten is loaded with top centers such as Iowa's Luka Garza, Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, Purdue's Trevion Williams and Wisconsin's Micah Potter. Not to mention Wisconsin's Nate Reuvers and Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis as Karl Malone Award candidates at power forward.
Growing pains are expected but Robbins is already on the radar of NBA scouts – and now even national awards.
So, what can fans expect to see from the Gophers’ new center when he makes his debut later this month?
“I try to do it all,” Robbins said after his waiver was granted in September to play immediately. “I pride myself on being a defensive player. I don’t necessarily need to score the ball ... But Pitino just really wants me to expand my game, so I can just be kind of a cog in the offense. I can move along the perimeter and shoot it a little bit. I can score in the post. Just being utilized in multiple ways is kind of his goal for me. I just want to win.”
2021 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award Candidates
Matt Haarms, BYU
Mark Williams, Duke
Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Luka Garza, Iowa
Olivier Sarr, Kentucky
Ahsan Asadullah, Lipscomb
Cameron Krutwig, Loyola Chicago
Mousa Cisse, Memphis
Liam Robbins, Minnesota
Armando Bacot, North Carolina
Walker Kessler, North Carolina
Trevion Williams, Purdue
Grant Golden, Richmond
Evan Mobley, USC
Neemias Queta, Utah State
Jay Huff, Virginia
Derek Culver, West Virginia
Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky
Micah Potter, Wisconsin
Loudon Love, Wright State