Before signing a two-way contract with the Miami Heat, before barraging the NBA Summer League with 3s and even before he was a key cog in Michigan’s run to the NCAA championship game, Duncan Robinson met Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich — and went straight to work.
As one of the architects of Michigan’s recent run to the NCAA championship game, Yaklich picked apart hours of film with the fifth-year senior forward. He knew that Robinson would be vital to the Wolverines’ offense as a capable 3-point shooter. At the same time, Yaklich recognized that the 2017-18 incarnation of Michigan basketball couldn’t necessarily just run-and-gun its way to success like past Wolverine teams under John Beilein.
“He just asked me ‘What do I need to do to get better?’,” Yaklich said. “I kind of will always remember that. We talked about things that we could do against certain teams and he just had this presence of mind about him and a understanding of basketball. His basketball acumen is really high.”
To make the plan work, Robinson — and everyone else on the roster — had to embrace the defensive side of the ball. Originally, the plan was to start freshman Isaiah Livers at power forward over Robinson. While Livers showed early flashes of defensive versatility, he had a hard time initially grasping Michigan’s offensive scheme, so the Wolverines went ahead and started Robinson.
Robinson though, struggled to find his shot during the start of Big Ten play, ceding the starting job back to Livers. Against No. 5 Michigan State on Jan. 13, Livers made his first start, helping the Wolverines to an 84-75 win. As Michigan marched on, Robinson finally faced the reality of playing from the bench.
“That season epitomized growth… to the team but also to myself,” Robinson said. “Specifically as a leader, I definitely had my ups and my downs over the course of the year,” Robinson said. “But I tried to stay true to my law as an adapter and a guy who had been through more to help out these younger guys.”
And despite his reduced role, Robinson kept finding new ways to contribute. Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson’s dogged man-to-man defense and redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews’ lanky-armed steals might be easier to see, but it was Robinson who was Yaklich’s self-described defensive “sounding board.” Robinson would bounce ideas back and forth with the coach on how to improve Michigan’s defense, then adopt what he had gleaned onto the court. Robinson and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman even called out other teams’ offensive plays, according to Yaklich.
“I know there was a point, it was in the middle to second half of the conference season,” Yaklich said. “There was just a confidence about him that no matter who he was guarding, whether it was (Ohio State forward) Keita Bates-Diop or a more physical 4-man in our league, Duncan was going to be a chameleon and adjust to however that particular opponent needed to be played.”
In a crucial road game at Penn State, Robinson racked up a Wolverine career-high three blocks. As the primary defender, he limited Bates-Diop, the eventual Big Ten Player of the Year, to 5-17 shooting in a win over Ohio State. Michigan held its opponents to 62.0 points per game during its 14-game win streak that led the Wolverines to the Final Four. Robinson even rediscovered his shooting stroke to the tune of 44 percent shooting from behind the arc in February and March and was named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Still, Robinson wasn’t done. It was time to take his shooting and his defensive growth to the NBA, even if he wasn’t as heralded as some of his peers that declared for the draft. All of the teams he had official pre-draft workouts with — the Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers — employed schemes that rely on spacing, shooting and value help defense. So far, so good.
While training in the Los Angeles area though, the Heat sent one of its scouts to look at Robinson. After a solid workout, Robinson was intrigued. He knew that the Miami had a lot of previous success with player development — guard Josh Richardson was a crucial piece for the Heat immediately as a second round pick, and the coaching staff revived the careers of former journeymen like center Hassan Whiteside and forward James Johnson. Even his former Michigan teammate, guard Derrick Walton Jr., was on the team.
“It’s not every day that one of your good friends has had that same experience that, as you are about to go through,” Robinson said.
Although Robinson ended up going undrafted, he knew where to go next. When Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra first talked to Robinson about potentially playing for Miami’s Summer League team, Robinson was sold.
Spoelstra pitched Robinson as a player who could fit the same mold as Heat shooting guard Wayne Ellington — a player who bounced around the league for eight years before signing with Miami and finishing sixth in the NBA in three pointers made last season.
“[Spoelstra] really likes guys that shoot the ball, and how they prioritize that within the organization and how my combination of size and skill could maybe help them in games,” Robinson said. “So they used the example of Wayne Ellington and how he’s always encouraged him to shoot and stay invested. And it’s not necessarily about how many makes, but he’s just always encouraging and that to get them off in there. That’s what every shooter wants to hear.”
Robinson won’t necessarily have as many responsibilities in the NBA as he did at Michigan. At least in the beginning of his career, his success will hinge on being in the right place at the right time. In his first Summer League game Robinson had a largely uneventful performance, going 1-4 from behind the arc and finishing with three points.
Fast forward to the next game, though, and Robinson found himself channeling his inner chameleon in the same way that he did at Michigan. On the first Heat possession of the game, Miami’s Bam Adebayo grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked the ball out to the top of the arc, where it effortlessly fell into the waiting hands of Robinson. Casually, Robinson pulled up and sunk the 3-pointer.
On the ensuing Heat possession, Robinson glided up the floor on a fastbreak, corralled in an outlet pass and, barely touching the ball, feathered in another deep 3 — two minutes later, another triple, from the same spot as the first one. Later in the first half, he even slipped a screen, and jammed a powerful two hand baseline dunk off a pass from Walton Jr.
Robinson finished the game with 19 points, adapting his game like he had at Michigan, this time on a more micro level.
It’s easy to mistake Robinson’s performance that day — and the ensuing ones in Las Vegas — as one of many Summer League hot shooting streaks that end up dying without so much as a whimper in the G-League. For every Manu Ginobili, there are twenty Anthony Randolphs or Josh Selbys that burn out. Like many of the great undrafted players before him, however, Robinson knows his role and has shown a willingness and the ability to revamp and add to his game when things aren’t going right.
“It was never a question mark of what was going to happen,” Yaklich said. “We knew we were going to get the best out of him.”