Duncan Robinson could always shoot the basketball. It just didn’t always seem like he was destined to display his best skill in the NBA Finals — certainly not when he walked onto the Division III Williams College campus in the fall of 2013.
But seven years later, Robinson has exceeded any and all expectations — not only making it to the NBA Finals, but also starting.
The Heat will rely on their sharpshooter as they attempt to upset LeBron James and the Lakers. But Robinson’s path isn’t as simple as “Division III player-turned-NBA marksman.” A stop at Michigan helped Robinson hone his game. And yet he remains one of the unlikelier players to start an NBA Finals game in recent memory.
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Duncan Robinson at Williams College
Robinson didn’t garner Division I interest out of high school, taking a post-graduate year before eventually enrolling at Williams, one of the top Division III programs in the country. Robinson’s AAU coach had played at Williams, which likely helped propel Robinson in that direction. Williams, known as the Ephs, made it all the way to the Division III championship game in Robinson’s lone year on campus.
At 6-7, Robinson’s size and shooting stroke made him basically unguardable at that level: He shot over 45 percent from 3-point land and averaged 17.1 points per game, including 30 points in the national semifinal win over Amherst.
Robinson decided to explore other opportunities when his head coach, Mike Maker, announced he was leaving to take the coaching job at Division I Marist. Maker had previously served under Michigan coach John Beilein at West Virginia, so Maker connected the two. Beilein offered Robinson a full scholarship, and he accepted — Robinson is believed to be the first Division III player to go to Division I and receive a full scholarship, according to Williams College.
Robinson develops at Michigan
After sitting out a year as a transfer, Robinson proceeded to play in all 115 of the possible games he could in his final three college seasons. He averaged 9.3 points per game across his time with the Wolverines, shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range.
Robinson didn’t do much by way of passing, rebounding or defensive plays; he was a floor-spacer mostly at Michigan. ESPN reported that Robinson said he never had a play run for him at Michigan, meaning pretty much all his looks came off of drive-and-dishes.
Robinson went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft, but was invited to NBA Summer League by the Heat. His play there earned him a two-way contract with Miami.
Erik Spoelstra uses Robinson to great effect
Robinson played limited action for the Heat in 2018-19, but again impressed Heat brass with his play at Summer League. ESPN reported that when Spoelstra met with Robinson in September 2019, he came armed with stats on the two games in which Robinson drained 10 3-pointers in the G League the prior season.
Spoelstra wanted to put Robinson in the Heat’s starting lineup this year as a way to space the floor around new acquisition Jimmy Butler and their creative big man, Bam Adebayo. So Robinson flies around the floor, coming off screens and taking dribble handoffs in much the same way as Reggie Miller or J.J. Redick. Robinson rises high when he takes his jump shot, able to fade while still keeping his form in perfect alignment. He started all but five Miami games this year.
Robinson shot a remarkable 44.6 percent from 3-point range this season, making 3.7 3-pointers per game; he attempted slightly more than one 2-pointer per game. On catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in 2019-20, Robinson shot 46.2 percent — the best mark in NBA history, one that broke noted sharpshooter Klay Thompson’s 44.4 percent record from 2017-18.
It makes sense that a shooter like Robinson would start in the NBA Finals — it just didn’t always look like he had enough eyes on him to get to the biggest stage in his sport. Now that he has, there’s no reason to doubt he’ll just keep shooting (and making).