Through two rounds of the NCAA tournament, David Robinson of Navy leads all players in the tournament with 65 points and 12 blocked shots, and is second with 23 rebounds. Yet many people are having trouble comprehending the numbers. On a Sunday night sports talk show in Chicago, a caller asked, "Is this David Robinson guy legit?"
The same question has been asked about Navy, which was seeded seventh in the East regional. But now the Midshipmen are among the final 16 teams in the tournament, and Robinson's decimation of Syracuse on national television Sunday in Syracuse -- 35 points, nine rebounds, eight blocked shots -- has dramatically reduced the number of doubters. Among the believers are opposing coaches, players and NBA scouts.
Bob Ferry, general manager of the Washington Bullets, said, "David Robinson is a wonderful player." And when asked if Robinson, a 7-foot junior, had any shortcoming as a potential pro, Ferry answered, "Yeah, he's in the Navy."
Coach Dick Tarrant, whose Richmond team split a pair of games with Navy this season, didn't need convincing. But he is aware of the skeptics. "He proved to the nation on Sunday what he can do against top-quality opponents," Tarrant said. "He intimidated the entire Syracuse team, which came within an eyelash of winning the Big East tournament. David is better than most believe. He certainly made mincemeat out of Rony Seikaly."
Those who questioned Robinson's ability during the regular season said that he didn't play against big-time teams every night, rarely saw an opposing pivotman taller than 6-8, wasn't aggressive enough and was short on experience, which supposedly would show up in the postseason. Obviously, that hasn't happened.
"Last year, I thought he was potentially the best center in the country," said American University Coach Ed Tapscott, whose team plays in the Colonial Athletic Association with Navy. "This year, I think he is the best. I know people still have questions. But his performance in the NCAA tournament ought to dispel all the damn questions."
Tapscott was one of several people interviewed who said that Robinson's athleticism sets him apart from other 7-footers. Although Naval Academy officials haven't been able to find the exact time, it is widely believed here that Robinson holds one of the best marks in the Navy obstacle course.
Robinson still demonstrates gymnastic maneuvers for the plebes. And Coach Paul Evans tells the story about the time Robinson came back from an exhibition tour of Spain with a new trick. "We went to a Hardee's one day and David said, 'Coach, look what I picked up in Spain.' And he walked from the car to the restaurant on his hands."
What that translates into on the basketball court is an ability to take a pass, outmaneuver two or three defenders and get off a jumper. Ferry calls him "a graceful athlete."
Athleticism may distinguish Robinson, but it does not singularly define him. His timing and size have helped make him the nation's leading shot blocker (5.9 per game) and rebounder (13.1) this season, and he has averaged 22.8 points per game. Being left-handed clearly helps him on both ends of the court, but most of all, Ferry said, "It really helps his shot blocking."
One would expect an agile 7-footer to block shots. But Robinson also leads the team in steals with 55, a stat reflective of Robinson's expanded defensive role.
"Last year he couldn't play defense. He was out of position a lot and didn't know where he should be," Evans said. "Plus, he'd loaf sometimes. . . . This season we've given him more and more responsibility. Last year we kept him out in the forward spot to keep him out of foul trouble, and because he rebounds well coming from a distance. But now we've moved him inside.
"Offensively, he just has to set up on that block and we'll get him the ball. And if you front him, we'll reverse the ball and we'll lob it to him. It's not a system where you have to be really physical in, or a system where he has an awful lot of responsibility."
It sounds simple, but there are lots of big men who can't catch the ball, shoot the post-up jumper or control the lob pass. "The kid's got great hands," Tapscott said. "He never drops anything."
Tarrant says Robinson's offense is "untapped. His offensive potential is so vast it's unbelievable. Can you imagine if he could make his free throws?" (Robinson is a 60 percent foul shooter, his biggest deficiency.)
Robinson has yet to show his hook shot. "He does it in practice, and may hit six straight," Evans said. "But when he misses it, he misses it bad. So it's something I don't think he has confidence in, yet."
Robinson certainly has confidence in his ability to play against those his size, which rarely happens. In fact, Robinson said Tuesday he would rather play against 6-10, 6-11 men like Seikaly than two 6-7 people hacking away at him for 40 minutes.
"It's much more frustrating with little guys around me," Robinson said. "But when you play against someone your own size, it gives you somewhere to focus your attention. And teams tend to put that one guy on you. When that happens, I feel I have an advantage because of my quickness and I move well."
Said Tarrant: "I'm not surprised to hear him say that because there aren't many players his size -- I can't think of one -- who's as quick as he is."
The two criticisms that Robinson most likely will hear, regardless of how well he plays the rest of the tournament, are that he still isn't aggressive enough and that he's way behind peers in experience.
Fans in this area grew so used to watching Patrick Ewing that they think Robinson is passive. Ferry said he thinks that criticism is "overplayed. As far as I'm concerned he has to be aggressive to put up the kind of numbers he has."
Tarrant begs that no comparisons be made between Ewing, Sampson and Robinson. Robinson didn't begin playing competitively until his late teens, which Evans believes may have even contributed to his meteoric rise. "He didn't have a lot of bad habits or do anything that would take a couple of years to correct or change," Evans said.
"David's just a baby," Tarrant said. "A neophyte. But it's really difficult to see him running up and down an NBA floor like Sampson and Ewing. I don't know if that's the most important thing in his life. It could be, but I don't know if he wants to."
Evans said, "The key is, how far does he want to go?"
That question is yet unanswered, considering his pending five-year service obligation.
Robinson's game is an extension of his personality. He's not an aggressive person, and neither is his game. But the camera did catch one sequence in the Syracuse game when Robinson blocked a shot at one end, then raced 90 feet the other way to slam in the rebound of a teammate's missed shot.
"That's how he answers," Tapscott said, "in the appropriate fashion. The kid scored 35 points and gets nine rebounds. How much more aggressive does he need to be?"