At the start of last season, the weight room appeared to be the answer for Duncan Robinson.
The then-redshirt junior forward dedicated himself to getting stronger in the summer of 2016, hoping to compete for a starting position against the athletically-gifted and lanky D.J. Wilson.
But Robinson lost the job and saw his new-found bulkiness as a hindrance in the minutes he saw from the bench, as he struggled to defend athletic big men.
“We felt last year when we were anticipating him and D.J. for a race for the four man that we needed to bulk him up,” said John Beilein. “And that was probably the wrong thing to do. He had a tough start and had a hard time staying in front.”
So this summer, Robinson made cardiovascular training a priority, mixing shooting and sprints into his workouts in hopes that it would improve his defense.
Beilein has noticed a difference. He even tested Robinson’s fitness by playing him for 10 consecutive minutes during a scrimmage – a longer-than-usual split. The result?
“He was hardly sweating,” Beilein said.
That work was also evident in Michigan’s open practice Oct. 24. Guarding forward Isaiah Livers, Robinson shuffled his feet to stay in front of the driving freshman, cutting off multiple drive attempts and forcing Livers to pass.
In last March’s Elite Eight game against Oregon, that never happened. Forward Dillon Brooks repeatedly took advantage of Robinson in isolation matchups, using his quickness to create shooting windows and easy shooting attempts.
But Robinson thinks his offseason work can help him improve on that side of the ball.
“I feel like I’m moving a lot more efficiently,” Robinson said. “I was a little bit bulkier, but I know I’m just stronger now. I can feel it every day in practice.”
Practices have also given Robinson the opportunity to grow as a leader. With the departures of Zak Irving and Derrick Walton Jr., Robinson will likely be a captain this season.
“With those guys out, I just do everything I can to fill that void,” Robinson said. “I’ve realized that I’ve had to raise my level just in terms of voice and being heard consistently. For me, that starts with relationships and just building relationships with guys off the court, and then it grows from there.”
One of those relationships, as it turns out, has begun with Livers.
“With a guy like Isaiah who I find myself a lot with,” Robinson said, “just always being in his ear and answering any questions he might have about anything – offensive system, defensive system and whatever.
“He’s so talented and so physically gifted as well. That’s always been there, and I think the mental aspect is getting there as well, and I’m just trying to help.”
Robinson hopes the competition improves both Wolverines’ abilities – just like it did during last year’s forward competition. After battling Wilson’s length and athleticism, Robinson said that he’s more prepared to face similarly-molded competition – a reality in the Big Ten.
And with improvements to his movement and defensive ability, Robinson is also more prepared to take on a bigger role than ever.
“I know it’s my last season, so I worked hard this offseason,” he said. “I’ve got to make it count.”