In adversity-filled month, Robinson finally gets his break
January hasn’t been easy for Duncan Robinson.
Just take last Thursday, when the fifth-year senior forward went scoreless against Nebraska — his first time pointless since his debut for the Michigan basketball team.
The 0-for-2 effort was representative of a career-worst season for Robinson, who’s shooting 37 percent beyond the arc. At times, a once dependable outside stroke has looked anything but.
That has caused a major shift for Robinson and the Wolverines. After a series of breakout performances, freshman forward Isaiah Livers took Robinson’s spot in the starting lineup.
Robinson, meanwhile, is playing fewer minutes than ever coming off the bench.
“The past 21 days have been a whirlwind,” Robinson said Sunday.
It’s the type of month that could have challenged Robinson’s relationship with coach John Beilein.
In 2014, the New Hampshire native left Williams College after one year for the chance to play Division I basketball in Beilein’s 3-point-minded offense. The two clicked and in his first year of eligibility, Robinson averaged nearly four 3-pointers and 11 points per game as a reserve.
Last year, Robinson returned for his first shot at a starting job. But with size and athletic ability that Robinson couldn’t match, D.J. Wilson won the competition and much more, playing his way to a first-round selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. Conversely, Robinson saw his usage drop by roughly eight minutes per game.
But this season seemingly provided Robinson with a fresh slate paired with junior center Mortiz Wagner in the front court. Robinson was effective early on, averaging 13 points in Michigan’s first seven contests.
Things began to change, however, in Michigan’s first game of the calendar year. Livers, the young reserve in waiting, scored 13 points in 27 minutes in a win at Iowa. Robinson played just 13 minutes and scored a mere five points.
That extrapolated over the next two weeks — Livers was a budding star, Robinson was lackluster — giving Beilein a predicament. It’s not often a fifth-year senior is benched for a player a half-decade younger.
Still, Beilein chose the latter.
“It was a conversation between coach and I,” Robinson said. “A lot of it will stay between him and I, but I kind of looked at is as a leadership moment to earn some credibility in that regard.”
Leadership was about all Robinson was good for in his immediate return to the bench. Last week, he made just three field goals in as many games.
But Sunday was different.
Robinson first awoke to a text from his coach, reaffirming his ability with a bit of advice.
“I sent him a quick text today,” Beilein said. “‘Duncan, you’re gonna be terrific today. Just come off shooting.’”
Hours later, Robinson did just that and more in a win over Rutgers: 12 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals.
“I just tried to be aggressive,” Robinson said. “In that role, I just try to come off and provide a spark. Offensively, I made some shots and defensively, I sat down.”
Added Beilein: “Duncan Robinson — it was what we needed today from him. He’s probably more rested than some of our guys, and when he made (his first) three when Isaiah was in foul trouble, it was a sign to play him more.”
Robinson took advantage of the extra opportunity, taking shots that he passed on in prior games. Midway through the first half, even with a defender draped over him, Robinson pulled the trigger and sank the Wolverines’ final go-ahead 3-pointer.
It was the sort of play that might earn others a trip to the bench.
But Robinson has been through thick and thin with Beilein over the past four years. Now, despite some hesitation, Robinson can take more chances.
“What we see (from Robinson) in practice in his drills is phenomenal,” Beilein said. “But when we go into practice sessions, he’s asking for permission. He doesn’t need permission, I trust him.”
No matter the minutes or starting designation, Michigan needs Robinson to leverage that trust. When on, his shooting stroke can be dangerous. Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell credited Robinson’s triples as a momentum killer Sunday.
But their significance is far greater. Finally, in the midst of a testing month, Robinson got his break.
“That’s the dude I know,” Wagner said. “That’s my roommate. That’s the player I’ve played with the last three years, so I’m not surprised at all. I’m very proud of him the way he bounces back.”