SANBORN — Niagara County has a knack for developing solid basketball players. Names could go on and on from John Hayes to Carlos Bradberry, Tim Winn, Paul Harris, Byron Mulkey, Jonny Flynn and so many more.
In 2020, there are is a stellar amount of hoopers making names for themselves at their respective high schools. One young player who sometimes goes unnoticed plays his home games on Niagara Wheatfield’s campus.
Falcons sophomore TJ Robinson is now in his second year of varsity action for Erik O’Bryan’s squad and is beginning to open eyes across Western New York.
Robinson was a key starter as a freshman for last year’s squad, which reached Buffalo State for the Section VI Class A-1 semifinals. In his first season, Robinson developed himself as a spot up shooter for a team led by seniors such as Davon Ware and Raejaun Smith. As Ware and Smith would make plays, Robinson would always be on the outside ready to take that crucial 3-pointer.
This season, Robinson has a fresh look to his game. He’s adapted himself as a rim attacker who can finish and get to the free throw line, and he can still shoot from behind the arc. As a freshman, Robinson posted 12 points per game. This season, the sophomore has boasted 19 points per game — 21 over his last 11 — in addition to 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
The season has been a process for Robinson and the young Falcons. N-W, at times, plays with an eighth grader, a freshman and Robinson on the court at the same time. But for Robinson, he’s continued to grow since his first day of varsity.
“The season’s going good. I’m learning how to be a better basketball player by attacking more. Last year, I was just a spot up shooter,” Robinson said. “I’ve seen my game grow really rapidly. Last year, I would just go through screens to the corner and shoot the 3. But now I’m just taking the ball up sometimes and just attacking the basket.”
O’Bryan added that watching Robinson is entertaining and “a breath of fresh air,” a sign of things to come for his young guard.
“Everyone that we’ve played, their coaches' eyes have raised and they say, ‘Wow, he has gotten a lot better.’ The funny part is he’s struggling with the 3-ball right now. That’s scary, because he’s doing all these other things other ways. He’s getting to the free throw line, he’s getting to the basket. It’s going to be fun when he’s at his best and that 3-ball starts to go back in. It’s going to be entertaining.
“(His growth) is unmeasurable. … He’s a scorer, and he’s finding ways to score. The way he moves without the basketball is second to none. He never stops now. Last year, that was a struggle for him,” O’Bryan said.
To grow into a good player doesn’t happen overnight, and O’Bryan praised Robinson’s work ethic, while the sophomore complimented his coach’s enthusiasm.
“He’s pushed me through a lot,” Robinson said. “He’s there with me for workouts in the mornings and he gets on me, but it’s for the better.”
O’Bryan added, “If you don’t know TJ, you have to understand that he’s in the gym in the morning, he’s in the gym in the afternoon. Last week before Iroquois – it was exam week – he got shots up at Pro Training with Tony Watson, because we couldn’t get in the gym early in the day. … I don’t put the pictures out there to let everyone know, but we have an eighth, ninth and 10th grader in here shooting on the gun three times last week. I come in and I get excited about that.”
Most high school hoopers get their chance to be the main scorer later in their varsity careers. Robinson possesses that role as a sophomore. As a freshman, when he had stellar stretches of games, O’Bryan said he was quick to let his young guy know not to get too far ahead of himself and to keep working.
“He’s earned every attention that he gets,” O’Bryan said. “We talked about it the other day … I told him ‘Just trust me, your time will come. If you put the work in, your time will come.’”
O’Bryan added that, as a freshman, there were times when Robinson seemed too worried about scoring, and “not in a selfish manner,” but this year, he’s had less worries about it and is putting up more points.
“It’s funny how when you stop worrying about scoring, usually scoring finds you. … And it’s finding TJ,” the coach said.
Despite his success this season, Robinson credited his Falcons teammates for making it all possible.
“Well, I give (props) to my teammates. They give me the chance to shoot the ball a lot, and I thank them for it. All the time I put in the gym, this is everything I really worked on,” Robinson said.
Of Robinson’s increased role offensively, O’Bryan added: “It speaks volumes to what he’s done in the summer. We told him last year that he couldn’t come back as just a spot up 3-point shooter. Spot up 3-point shooters don’t make it too far. Good shooters that can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket and get to the free throw line are good players, not shooters.
“I think the transformation of him being a good shooter last year, to him becoming a good player this year, I think it’s so recognizable. As soon as you watch him play, you recognize that change in him.”
Last season, the Falcons had five seniors on the roster between Ware, Smith, Zach Stanley, Roman Wright and Cam Miller. Robinson said he learned certain aspects of the game from each senior and O’Bryan added that the guard has benefitted from back-to-back top-notch senior classes.
“It was a core group of seniors that were pretty good, had a good season and TJ got to experience that," he said. "I will say, though, these young gentlemen we have in TJ, Shawn (Watson) and Xander (Fletcher), they couldn’t have a better group of senior men. These seniors on this team are second to none when it comes to character, leadership, accountability and just genuine good guys. So I think that is special.
"TJ has now had two years on varsity and he’s been able to have two (stellar) senior classes. That doesn’t happen often. Sometimes you get a senior that is jealous or not want to help, but I can’t speak high enough of this senior class and how well they’ve handled having this young group of guys."
On the lighter side, Robinson said his favorite NBA player is James Harden and he tries to model his game a little like his. The sophomore said, like Harden, he uses change of speeds to help his ability to find a jumper or blow past a defender with the dribble drive and get to the free throw line.
O’Bryan agreed with some similarities, such as the role of a scorer and, with a laugh, said he’d love to see Robinson add seven to eight more assists per game like Harden. And, aside from shooting the deep ball and driving to the bucket, O’Bryan said he’d like to see his sophomore continue to work on his mid-range game.
Moving forward, the Falcons have lost a few close games this season and post a record of 5-9. To turn the tight heartbreakers into wins, Robinson said, “We just have to close games. We’re scoring pretty high … so I think we just have to focus on defense.”
And while Robinson set goals of becoming an All-Western New York and All-Niagara Frontier League player and hopes of making a deep playoff run in his high school career, O’Bryan set one goal for his sophomore — a goal he sets with every player who has laced up in the red, black and white.
“I just want to help him grow as a man and as a basketball player. And that’s my goal. We want successful young men, and that’s part of my job. I’ll do whatever I can to keep growing them as a player,” O’Bryan said.
Robinson and the Falcons are back in action at 6:30 p.m. today versus Lockport.