Duncan Robinson has taken unlikely path to NBA Finals
“It really wasn’t on my radar,” said Robinson. “During my high school career, I didn’t work or go to the gym because I wanted to play in the NBA. It was, I wanted to get off the floor at the high school level and I wanted to play in college. The goal posts when playing in the NBA were obviously far away, but they were so far away that they really weren’t even in sight. ”
Jay Tilton, who coached this graduate degree at Phillips Exeter Academy, added, “Most kids who go to X talk more about their MBA than about the NBA.”
But here is Robinson, who ranks third in the league with his 44.6 three-point percentage among the 52 players who have played at least six threes a game in the regular season. His pair of three in the final five minutes of victory over the Celtics included the dagger, which was 15 points clear after two minutes. Robinson turned to jog in the square with his right wrist. His left palm rose to the sky as if to say “Hallelujah”.
Winning is the only thing that couldn’t be questioned about Robinson’s game without the textbook jump shot. Phillips Exeter Academy won the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council’s Class A championship in 2013 when he was named the tournament’s MVP. Robinson was named Division III Rookie of the Year and All-American when he led Williams College to the 2014 NCAA tournament championship game. He took these awards and turned them into a scholarship in Michigan, where, as a senior, he participated in two Big Ten tournament championships, two Sweet 16 appearances, and a trip to the 2018 NCAA tournament championship game. Robinson was named the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year that season.
That’s a lot of wins, but the NBA aspirations have been subdued at best and those thoughts were confirmed when it was undrafted in 2018.
“Even during my Michigan career, I was far from a surefire NBA player,” said Robinson. “And I knew that. I knew it would take some breaks, some luck, a lot of work, and just the right time and place. “
Robinson made his career by being in the right place at the right time. The Michigan opportunity only became a thing after Williams College Trainer Mike Maker took a job at Marist College. Maker was an employee of then Michigan coach John Beilein in West Virginia. After not drafting, Robinson turned a strong performance with the Heat Summer League team into a two-way contract in 2019. Miami was the place to go as it is known to have one of the best cultures in the league for a player to develop and work hard in is rewarded.
And that’s Robinson’s calling card – hard work.
“There are only 450 people that make up this league,” said heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “I think a great separator, probably one of the largest separators, is your level of endurance and grittiness. And Duncan has proven that his strength is unusual because there would be a lot of things that would prevent him from becoming one of the 450 in this league.
“You never know until you have someone in your building, then they have to work through some things and face some adversity and so on.”
Previous coaches take up this similar theme when the subject turns to Robinson. During that senior year of high school, he became a shooter as basketball was life to Robinson and his friends. Tilton called them “basketball nerds”.
Even so, many teenagers can shoot the ball and do not have the physical attributes to play at the next level. Robinson was so skinny Division I coaches stayed away and Williams College became the way to keep playing. As a high school graduate, he only weighed around 170 to 175 pounds before starting this weight room job at Williams College. Progress was made, but Robinson still didn’t arrive in Michigan until he was 191 pounds and could barely squat his own body weight. Michigan strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson said an entire body makeover was needed.
“It’s one of our great stories of progress and development. … He’s the guy who was hungry from the start and wanted to prove himself, ”said Sanderson. “I think what everyone sees [now] is a look at how motivated he is, how determined he is and how he doesn’t fit in a box: “You can’t play at this level because you’re Division III.”
Robinson had to sit for a year due to transfer rules and used this time to transform. He gained 20 pounds in a single year, increased his bench press by over 50 pounds, and increased his vertical jump by 4.5 inches. By the time Robinson left Michigan, his weight had dropped 215 pounds and his vertical jump had increased seven inches. That’s the kind of work ethic that gives a lanky boarding school kid with no real NBA hopes a starter on a team that takes four wins from a championship ring.
People look back and wonder how the entire league missed a shot to pick the sniper, but doubts remained after Michigan. Beilein credits former Wolverine Glen Rice, who works in the Miami front office, for constantly calling to inquire about Robinson. Work ethic was never an issue, but trust was. Beilein had to ask Robinson to actively look for gunfire, and Spoelstra asked for it.
“We have a saying that volume creates trust,” said Beilein. “And his shot volume gave him great confidence to shoot. But his volume of work is incredibly good [has also].
“He’s hungry. He has a chip on his shoulder. He tries to prove himself to everyone every day. … That’s what he feeds on. So that’s his attitude.”
It wasn’t an attitude Robinson was simply born with. He regards it as an individual skill that cannot be developed other than dribbling or shooting. This is what Robinson can rely on when times are challenging or his confidence is weakening. It’s the only thing – other than that beautiful stroke – that has got him this far and he won’t forget it.
“He keeps coming back to work, whether he has an off-game, a really great game, a mediocre one,” said star striker Jimmy Butler. “He’s always here to get better, to learn, and to make sure we can win the next. I think you respect that about him. Thirst for knowledge. And he just wants to help us win a championship. With a guy like that in your corner, all you can do is keep praising him, keep loving him, and keep being grateful that he’s on your team. “