Duncan Robinson’s Rise from NCAA DIII to NBA Finals
The now well-known factoid heard on ESPN, printed in news publications, and read in the broadcaster’s notes is true. Robinson donned an Ephs’ jersey in 2013-14 and, according to statistics from the NCAA, is among 1.2% of Division III men’s basketball student-athletes that continued their careers professionally.
But if you saw him during his early years at Governor’s Academy (Byfield, MA), his jersey hanging loose off his undersized frame, you might think Division III basketball was the ceiling; an accomplishment for him to be proud of. Now, a proven winner at all levels of the game, there’s no question it has all fallen into place for Robinson.
“He was, physically, not in a place that people were convinced he could handle the rigors of high-level college basketball,” said Jay Tilton, who coached Robinson at Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, NH) during a post-graduate year. “Look at him now, he’s out there taking charges from LeBron James and hitting a three at the other end. He’s clearly put himself in a situation where he is able to handle that with ease now.”
Robinson’s size was a question mark early on, forcing him to work harder on his skill set and basketball knowledge. After a growth spurt during his senior year, Robinson started to put everything together and opted to attend Phillips Exeter to see if he could garner college attention. There, he was able to get stronger while also building his case to college coaches by earning a spot on the NEPSAC Class A All-League First Team and leading the program to its first NEPSAC Class A Championship.
“It was right kid, right place, right time,” Tilton said. “Everything started to come together in his year here. Of course, I don’t think anyone can take credit for it more than him with the work he put in, but I think it ended up being the perfect spot for what he needed at that time.”
Robinson’s family prioritizes education. The attention to detail, hard work, and passion needed to excel in the classroom have been noticeable to Robinson’s approach to basketball as well. These aspects have led him to this point so far and as an undrafted signing can be the difference between making it in the league or not.
The Miami Heat forward has risen to the occasion so far in his NBA career, shooting 332-for-762 from three-point range for a 43.6% clip this past season – the type of numbers seen only twice before, both times from Steph Curry.
“Duncan does everything with great passion. When he sets his mind to something that is important to him, he is not going to be deterred,” Tilton said. “He’s always been exceptionally coachable. … He was always willing to take the best of the situation and really apply that to his own game or whatever he was doing at that given time.”
Robinson’s desire to get better as a player bordered on obsession. Following his season with Phillips Exeter, Robinson started to eye a practice shooting record of the number of 3-pointers in five minutes set by former-Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas. Robinson and some of his teammates spent countless hours in the gym, recording themselves as they tried to set a new mark.
“That became an obsession of his,” Tilton said. “That’s all they did. Saturday night those guys are in the gym constantly trying to beat the record and funny enough Duncan shattered it when he got to Michigan. He has spent tons and tons of time perfecting his craft. He’s always done that.”
Throughout his career, Robinson’s pathway to the NBA has been one of self-generated momentum as he has made the most of opportunities. Prior to his freshman year of college, he was able to show off his now more developed skillset on the court and his high-character traits off it at an all-star camp at Brandeis University, catching the attention of his future head coach.
“It was love at first sight if you will,” said former Williams head coach Mike Maker. “It took me just a few minutes to basically nickname him baby (Mike) Dunleavy at that time. I thought he had an extremely high basketball IQ, he had length, premium skills, he was a great teammate and obviously shot it at a really high clip. Truthfully, I thought he was just a complete basketball player.”
Williams College (Williamstown, MA) was the next logical step on the journey for Duncan, not only academically, but on the court as well being a consistent power in the NESCAC – the Duke of Division III, according to coach Maker. During his first and only season there, the Ephs made a run to the NCAA Championship, led by Robinson who earned All-American status as a freshman after posting 17.1 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game.
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But even when he is not the star on the team, winning has seemed to follow Robinson so far in his young basketball career. Robinson appeared in NCAA Championships in Division I and Division III with Michigan and Williams respectively and has now done so in the NBA as well. It is starting to get harder to dismiss it as purely coincidence.
“Everywhere he goes the programs have been championship caliber. You have to start to wonder after a while why is that? What’s the common denominator? He has the ability to lift programs, clearly, there are other factors involved, but you can’t ignore the fact that wherever he goes that success follows,” Tilton said.