Duncan Robinson has taken unlikely path to NBA Finals

“It really wasn’t on my radar,” Robinson said. “Throughout my high school career, I wasn’t working or getting in the gym because I wante...



“It really wasn’t on my radar,” Robinson said. “Throughout my high school career, I wasn’t working or getting in 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 of playing in the NBA were obviously way down the line, but they were so far down the line, they really weren’t even within sight.”

Jay Tilton, who coached that postgraduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy, added, “Most kids that go to X are talking more about their MBA than they are the NBA.”

Yet here Robinson is, draining threes for the Eastern Conference champs after his 44.6 three-point percentage ranked No. 2 in the league among the 52 players that took at least six triples per game in the regular season. His pair of triples in the last five minutes of the clinching win over the Celtics included the dagger to take a 15-point lead at the two-minute mark. Robinson turned to jog up court with his right wrist still flicked, his left palm turned up to the sky as if to say “Hallelujah.”

Winning is the one thing that couldn’t be questioned about Robinson’s game, not including the textbook jump shot. Phillips Exeter Academy won the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class A championship in 2013 as he was named tournament MVP. Robinson was named Division III Rookie of the Year and an all-American while taking Williams College to the 2014 NCAA Tournament championship game. He took those accolades and turned them into a scholarship at Michigan where he was part of two Big Ten Tournament championships, two Sweet 16 appearances and a trip to the 2018 NCAA Tournament championship game as a senior. Robinson was named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year that season.

That’s a lot of wins, but the NBA aspirations were still muted at best and those thoughts were confirmed when he went undrafted in 2018.

“Even throughout my Michigan career, I was far from a surefire NBA player,” Robinson said. “And I knew that. I knew it would require some breaks, some luck, a lot of work and just some right time, right place type of stuff.”

Robinson has made a career out of being in the right place at the right time. The Michigan opportunity only became a thing after Williams College coach Mike Maker took a job at Marist College. Maker had been on then-Michigan coach John Beilein’s staff at West Virginia. After going undrafted, Robinson turned a strong showing with the Heat Summer League team into a two-way contract in 2019. Miami was the right place as it’s known to have one of the best cultures in the league where a player can develop and hard work is rewarded.

And that’s Robinson’s calling card — hard work.

“There’s only 450 human beings that make this league,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “So I think a big separator, probably one of the biggest separators, is your level of persistence and grit. And Duncan has proved that he is uncommon with his grit because there would be a lot of things that would be in the way of him becoming one of the 450 in this league.

“You never know until you get somebody in your building, then they have to grind through some things and face some adversity and so forth.”

Past coaches take that similar theme when the topic turns to Robinson. He turned into a deadeye marksman during that final year in high school as basketball was life for Robinson and his friends. Tilton referred to them as “basketball nerds.”

Still, a lot of teenagers can shoot the ball and don’t have the physical attributes to play at the next level. Robinson was so skinny Division I coaches stayed away and Williams College became the path to keep playing. He only tipped the scales at about 170-175 pounds as a high school senior before starting to put in that weight-room work at Williams College. Strides were made, but Robinson still only arrived at Michigan at 191 pounds and could barely squat his own body weight. Michigan strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson said a total body makeover was needed.

“He’s one of our all-time great stories of progress and development. … He’s a guy that just was hungry from the very beginning, wanted to prove himself,” Sanderson said. “I think what everyone’s seeing [now] is a glimpse at how motivated he is, his determination and how he’s not going to fit into any box of, ‘You can’t play at this level because you’re Division III.’”

Robinson had to sit a year due to transfer rules and used that time to transform himself. He put on 20 pounds in a single year, increased his bench press by over 50 pounds and increased his vertical jump 4.5 inches. By the time Robinson left Michigan, his weight settled around 215 pounds and his vertical jump had increased seven inches. That’s the type of work ethic that gives a lanky boarding-school kid with no genuine NBA hopes into a starter on a team four wins from a championship ring.

People look back and wonder how the entire league missed out on a shot to select the sharpshooter, but doubts remained after Michigan. Beilein credits former Wolverine Glen Rice, who works in the Miami front office, for continuously calling to inquire about Robinson. Work ethic was never an issue, but confidence was. Beilein had to beg Robinson to actively hunt for shots and Spoelstra has demanded it.

“We have a saying that volume builds confidence,” Beilein said. “And his volume of shots has given him great confidence to shoot. But his volume of work at being in incredible shape [has also].

“He’s hungry. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’s trying to prove himself every day to everybody. … That’s what he feeds off of. So that’s his mind-set.”

That wasn’t a mind-set Robinson was simply born with. He considers it an individual skill that can be developed no different from dribbling or shooting. That has become something Robinson can lean on when times are challenging or his confidence wanes. That’s the one thing — besides that gorgeous stroke — that has led him this far and he’s not about to forget it.

“He keeps coming back to work, no matter if he has an off game, a really great game, a mediocre one,” Heat star forward Jimmy Butler said. “He’s always in here trying to get better, trying to learn and trying to make sure that we can win the next one. I think that’s what you respect about him. Thirsty for knowledge. And he just wants to help us win a championship. When you have a guy like that in your corner all you can do is continue to praise him, continue to love him and continue to be grateful that he’s on your team.”

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Newsrust: Duncan Robinson has taken unlikely path to NBA Finals
Duncan Robinson has taken unlikely path to NBA Finals
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