Even during an era of Cougar basketball that’s been more synonymous with losing than winning, there have been two words – or two syllables, whichever you prefer – that have given Washington State’s ever-patient fan base reason to keep watching.
Robert Franks – “Robo” as he’s affectionately known – has been must-see television the past two seasons, and his evolution from a lightly recruited high school prospect to the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player to the conference’s leading scorer at 22.1 points per game, has made him one of college basketball’s top success stories over the past four years, even if his story – and his success – have been obscured by a particularly tough stretch for Ernie Kent and the Cougars.
Yet, in an era of college basketball where loyalty and consistency can be hard to come by, Franks has been a symbol of both, neglecting opportunities to leave WSU for greener pastures – other schools and last year, the NBA – and instead opting to nurture his game in Pullman.
“Coming in as an 18-year-old, I was kind of lost, out of shape, not really focused,” Franks said Saturday after a Senior Day game against Oregon State. “Coming here with WSU, they just treated me like family. They were patient with me, then it finally clicked for me.”
Did it ever.
Franks saw his numbers improve, and at times skyrocket, each season with the Cougars. The senior forward will finish his WSU career in the program’s top five all-time in free-throw percentage (82 percent), top 10 in 3-point field goals (166), top 15 in points scored (1,339) and top 20 in blocked shots.
If WSU can’t win four games in four days at the Pac-12 Tournament, Franks will play in a crimson uniform for the last time this week at the T-Mobile Arena. A cast of 10 teammates – three current and seven former – helped recount his five most important games as a Cougar.
No. 1: WSU 78, Cal 53 (2017-18)
Ernie Kent made multiple assistant coaching hires between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, adding Ed Haskins to his staff along with Bennie Seltzer, who’d make his return to Pullman nearly three decades after starring for Kelvin Sampson’s teams as a record-setting guard in the late 1980s/early 1990s. One record near and dear to Seltzer’s heart was the school’s single-game 3-point mark, set in 1993 and later by matched by Chris Crosby (1998), Marcus Moore (2002) and Derrick Low (2007). But the clock began ticking on the record as soon as Franks connected on his first 3-pointer in a mid-January game against Cal. Then his second. Third. Fourth. Fifth. Sixth. Seventh…
Jeff Pollard (WSU forward, 2016-present): “I think when he was at eight, we were all sitting down, and I think Bennie had mentioned something to somebody, and it just kind of got passed down the bench. We were all like talking and whispering, ‘Oh, he’s at eight. The record’s nine. He just needs two more.’”
Carter Skaggs (WSU guard, 2017-present): “(SID) Jess (Holmes) came and told us. She had mentioned it to the coaches, so we’re like, ‘Let’s find Robo.’ ”
Malachi Flynn (WSU guard, 2016-18): “You try not to do it too blatantly out of the offense, but at the end of the day you try to get the ball to him. And for the last three, I remember everybody just trying to get him. We were up, we didn’t care.”
Drick Bernstine (WSU forward, 2018-19): “He would not miss. I remember one pass I threw between my legs to him because I was like, as long as he catches it, he’s going to make it.”
Franks was good in the first half, making three 3-pointers, but he was automatic in the second, connecting on seven more to send the WSU bench into a full-fledged frenzy.
Pollard: “When he’s on, he’s record-breaking.”
The phenomenon, in one word?
Steven Shpreyregin (WSU guard, 2016-18): “Hot.”
Viont’e Daniels (WSU guard, 2015-present): “Fire.”
Flynn dished out the assist that led to the record-breaker, flashing three fingers with his right hand as the ball was still midair.
Daniels: “It was like he was throwing a rock in the ocean. He threw it up and he knew it was going in, I knew it was going in and it was just bottoms.”
Flynn: “Sometimes he’s so unselfish, he should shoot it and he won’t. So you just tell him to keep shooting it, nobody’s going to be mad, so keep shooting them. Get them up.”
Bernstine: “It was almost like they thought he couldn’t keep making them, and he continued to make them through the whole game.”
Siting alongside the assistant coaches on the Cougar bench, Seltzer tossed his right arm into the air as Franks’ shot sliced through the net. The record, 24 years old, was as good as gone.
Daniels: “So I’m glad he broke Bennie’s record because he loves gloating about his records and all this and that, so it was pretty cool. He had to tip his cap off to him.”
Arinze Chidom (WSU forward, 2016-present): “It was real cool to see Bennie over there smiling. He wasn’t mad, but he was just kind of like, ‘Dang, he got my record.’ It was kind of like a proud father moment, I guess. … We did the little pour-the-water on him after the game to cool him down.”
Franks’ old teammates had been following along from afar – Ike Iroegbu in Los Angeles, Josh Hawkinson and Conor Clifford from Japan.
Ike Iroegbu (WSU guard, 2013-17): “The Robo I played with probably would’ve never shot that shot, so to see him have all that confidence to shoot the fadeaway in the right-hand corner.”
Josh Hawkinson (WSU forward, 2013-17): “He was hitting a couple of them from the parking lot.”
Conor Clifford (WSU center, 2015-17): “I’ve seen him go for maybe 15, 20 in a row after practice from just going around the spots. So we all knew he had that in him.”
No. 2: WSU 93, San Diego State 86 (2017-18)
During a transformational offseason, Franks made significant changes to his body, losing 25 pounds, and he honed his jump shot, which allowed him to hit 40 percent of his 3-pointers after making just 30 percent the season before. He scored 25 points in two of his first three games, all against lesser opposition, but would run into a series of true litmus tests in the Wooden Legacy Invitational, where the Cougars knocked off Saint Joseph’s and Saint Mary’s to set up a title-game showdown with San Diego State.
Daniels: “I didn’t really talk to him, I didn’t really see him at all throughout the summer, so I was in shock when I saw his body. He worked tremendously on his body and he really worked on his skill, his shooting and being a consistent shooter, a consistent knockdown shooter.”
Pollard: “We were kind of waiting to see, we know he’s good, but how good is he? And he really showed how good he is by having games like that against those kind of teams.”
After scoring 15 points against the Gaels, Franks turned around to score 22 the following day against the Aztecs – every point precious in a 93-86 win for WSU.
Skaggs: “That place was packed for San Diego State. We got down early, I think, and we just chipped away, chipped away. But yeah, we stepped up big and Malachi stepped up big. But obviously, we wouldn’t have won that game without (Franks).”
Bernstine: “We were down probably seven points or something with not that much time left, and I remember him and Malachi looked at each other and gave each other that signal like, ‘It’s time.’ ”
Iroegbu, playing in the NBA G-League at the time, was invited to join the Cougars on the bench.
Iroegbu: “The thing about Robo, he starts playing better when he starts talking trash. When he starts talking trash, he starts killing it. He was talking trash to some player on SDSU … they just kept going back and forth, back and forth, and Robo just started killing it.”
WSU’s bench – and the small crowd of crimson shirts tucked into the bleachers – gasped collectively when Franks tumbled to the ground with 13 minutes to play in the second half. The junior limped off the floor, holding his right ankle as he went, but eventually returned to ice the game from the free-throw line, where he finished 7 of 7.
Pollard: “I remember thinking to myself, ‘He needs to get back in there.’ We need him.”
Flynn: “He was carrying us that game. The whole tournament, pretty much, he was playing really good. And I just remember when he got hurt, I told him there was no way we were going to win if he didn’t come back out.”
Daniels: “He has the ability to take over the game just under the rug. It’s not really too flashy, it’s just easy. The game comes easy to him, especially when he’s knocking down shots and for us in that game, it was a high-intensity game, it was our third game in three days. Fatigue, we were sore, but we knew we had to grind it out and he came out I think in the first 10-12 minutes and he was on. He was on.”
No. 3: WSU 91, Arizona State 70/WSU 69, Arizona 55 (2018-19)
Mired in a five-game losing streak, the slumping, struggling Cougars traveled to the desert in February for a two-game swing against Arizona State and Arizona. Taking one of two games from the Sun Devils and Wildcats seemed far-fetched for a team that still hadn’t won outside of Pullman all year. But Franks had other plans.
Pollard: “Robo’s energy was just completely different. It was contagious and we had a good practice here, went down and had a good practice down there. And he just, throughout that whole stretch leading up to the game, he was just all about, ‘Hey man, let’s go down there and let’s have some fun. Let’s go down there, let’s kick their butts. Let’s just play our game.’”
Franks’ positive attitude radiated through WSU’s locker room. His play, meanwhile, lifted the Cougars to a 50-33 halftime lead against ASU that might have caused anyone not watching to perform a double-take. Franks wore the Sun Devils down with his 3-point shot, which went in five times on nine tries, and he applied pressure by constantly driving to the rim and earning trips to the free-throw line. All said and done, a 34-point, 13-rebound effort helped WSU secure a 91-70 victory.
Daniels: “When he didn’t come with us on the Utah-Colorado trip and he had to stay with us in rehab, he was also getting a lot of shots up. He wasn’t just rehabbing. I think that was a big momentum for him to finally get his rhythm because he had kind of been struggling. … He was doing it all for us, so that Arizona State game, he took over the game from start to finish.”
Chidom transferred from WSU in December, but is still been following the Cougars from California.
Chidom: “I’ve been guarding him for, like, three years. Because that’s my matchup in practice, so everything he does, I know his game more than anybody else playing right now. … So it was really cool to see that all come together, with his jumper and his size and his ability to put the ball on the ground and make smart reads and decisions.”
Rinse, repeat. After Franks guided WSU past ASU in Tempe, the Wildcats got a dose of the Pac-12’s top scorer in Tucson. On yet another 11-for-17 shooting effort, Franks contributed 31 points and eight boards to a 69-55 win at the McKale Center.
Skaggs: “He was the best player on the floor at all times in both of those games, and that just shows how much of a pro he is to be able to put us on the back like that, and be able to go out there and do what he did.”
Daniels: “There was nothing the Arizona teams could do. They switched, too small, they switched a big on him, he’s too slow, and Robo’s shot’s just so fast and quick, you’re not going to be able to contest it.”
Hawkinson: “The other thing with Robo is he’s the No. 1 option on the team, and this is his second year in a row being the No. 1 guy, they’ve got to circle in the scouting report – just stop him. And he’s improved his numbers from last year, which is amazing.”
No. 4: Oregon State 85, WSU 77 (2018-19)
In his first game at Beasley Coliseum – the 2015-16 season opener against Northern Arizona – Franks logged a modest 12 minutes, missed both of his shots from the field and had two turnovers to go with two fouls. His evolution over four years was staggering, if indicated by nothing else than the numbers he posted in his swan song at Beasley, 108 games and some 1,300 points later.
Flynn: “He knows he’s the best player on the court when he steps on there. That’s the mindset you’ve got to have, and you can tell he has that now, and I think that’s just from all the work he’s put in.”
Daniels: “That’s my brother, so it’s just been a great time seeing him grow from where we were my freshman year to now, and now he’s going to be a pro, so that’s just fun to see.”
Iroegbu: “Me, Josh and Junior (Longrus), we always told Robo how nice he is, how good of a player he is, so to watch it and to see him flourish the way he did last year and this year, it was great to see, because we expected it and we wanted it to happen so bad.”
About those Senior Day numbers. Despite an eight-point loss, Franks made sure to put on one more dazzling show for the home fans. He hit eight 3-pointers, two off his school record, and finished with 37 points, nine rebounds and three assists.
Flynn: “It’s a regular thing for him now, I’m not even surprised when he does it anymore. So that was fun to watch, too. I think Senior Night you just see all over the country, you see seniors playing extremely well. So I don’t think it was any surprise that Robo came to play.”
Bernstine: “He definitely made that his mission to outscore (Oregon State forward) Tres (Tinkle) that game, and it was unique he was able to do it. More than anything, it was like every time Tres scored, he made sure that he came right back. It’s unique that he’s becoming a dog each and every day.”
No. 5: USC 87, WSU 64 (2016-17)
Before Franks’ upstart junior season and mammoth senior season was a quietly important sophomore season. The forward was still coming off the bench for Kent, but his minutes saw a small uptick and he got lots of valuable practice reps banging inside with WSU’s starting bigs, Hawkinson and Clifford.
Clifford: “It was tough playing behind because you’re playing behind Mr. Double-Double, you know? (Hawkinson averaged 15.5 points and 10 rebounds as a junior). There’s not much minutes up for grabs there. … I remember there were days he’d scrap with me in the post and he would not back down. I probably had what, 30, 40 pounds on him, and he’d fight me tooth-and-nail in the post. I remember after each of those practices, after every one we’d be matched up against, we’d kind of meet up afterward and high-five, because we would be fighting so hard that it was almost like a real fight, and you had to make up with your teammate afterward. Like, ‘Good fight.’”
Hawkinson: “Coach Kent would always talk about, me and Robo were one of the most talented big guys that are able to stretch the floor that he’s had, that he’s been able to coach. So we’d always go one-on-one in practice.”
Shpreyregin: “I remember I told my roommate my first year, his sophomore year, when he wasn’t playing a lot I was like, I never saw what a pro looks like, but Robo’s a pro. He’s so good, once he figures it out. So, he had a lot of spurts in practice. If you ask Ike, he actually dunked on Ike one time. He wouldn’t want me to say that. I really remember that on that far hoop over there. But he had times where he just really showed what he’s showing now. ”
Franks averaged just 16.4 minutes per game, but in the third-to-last game of the season against USC at the Galen Center, he broke out with a 20-point performance that mirrored many of the closed-door practices teammates had raved about. The 20 points came on 8-of-13 shooting from the field and Franks matched his season-high, playing 29 minutes.
Flynn: “He looked like he definitely needed more minutes.”
Iroegbu: “He had that look in his eye that he knew he belonged. Everyone needs that one game where you play and you do well and you kind of surprise yourself a little bit. All you need is that one game to tick off, and he had it. That game just started everything for Robo, I feel like.”
Hawkinson: “I think that was really kind of a coming-out party for him where he showed he can play and score the ball at this level.”
Pollard: “And the way it panned out after that was like, OK we’re losing these guys (Hawkinson, Iroegbu, Clifford, Charles Callison) but we’ll still have Robo.”
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