It’s hard to call someone who has earned $53 million and is set to earn nearly $40 million more over the next two seasons an underdog. But hey, NBA money isn’t regular money.
However, Duncan Robinson has traveled all the way from Division III basketball to the highest level of the sport.
Growing up in York, Maine – not exactly a hotbed for basketball players – Robinson wasn’t a big-name player for The Governor’s Academy, a small private school in Massachusetts.
In fact, if you saw him as a high school freshman – a scrawny 5’7″ point guard fighting for scraps of playing time – you’d never guess he’d be where he is today.
He barely played as a sophomore and only started to become a serviceable player in his junior year.
As a senior, he averaged 18.5 points per game, which landed him a spot on the All-NEPSAC Class B First Team and the All-Independent School League Team.
But to college recruiters, he was still an unknown commodity.
With little to no interest from any big-time schools, Robinson spent one year playing prep for Phillips Exeter Academy.
With the Big Red, he averaged 25 points per game, while adding a couple of inches and putting on some size that helped the team capture the NEPSAC Class A championship. That’s when Robinson started to turn some heads.
Ivy League schools like Brown and Columbia flirted but didn’t make an official offer. His only other scholarship offer came from Division II Merrimack College.
But after visiting Division III Williams College – the number one ranked liberal arts college in America at the time – Robinson immediately accepted an offer to play for the Ephs.
Following an award-winning freshman season, in which he led the team to the 2014 NCAA Division III championship game, Robinson gained more attention from a handful of mid-major Division I schools.
That summer, Robinson found himself a new team, joining the Michigan Wolverines as a redshirt for the 2014-15 season.
“Before Williams, what I wanted more than anything was a Division I offer,” Robinson told MLive.
“Not getting it, and going to Williams, and embracing that, I guess…it sounds corny, but that gave me respect for the game. To see the different levels, and to know where I was, to be here now in the span of two years, it’s just crazy.”
Once he hit the floor, Robinson proved he could hang with the best of the best at the Division I level. He averaged 11 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in his first year playing for coach John Beilein.
There appeared to be a glitch in the matrix during Robinson’s second season in Ann Arbor as his minutes and stats declined significantly, despite the team having success. Luckily, his numbers improved slightly in his senior season, as the first man off the bench for a team that reached the final game of March Madness.
With averages of 9.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.2 assists, it’s not hard to see why Robinson was overlooked by every NBA team, even though he did shoot 41% from downtown.
Like many other undrafted college players, he received a second chance to make a first impression when the Miami Heat offered him a spot on their 2018 Summer League roster.
He seized the opportunity, shooting 58% from the field and 63% from the three-point line. That performance earned the 6’7” small forward a two-way contract with the Heat and their G-League affiliate, The Sioux Falls Skyforce.
One person who wasn’t shocked by Robinson’s ability to fill the basket was his former coach.
“I’m not surprised that he can shoot like that,” Beilein said.
“You know, I watched it with my own eyes every day in practice under a lot of situations, especially when we really pushed him to the ball, he still got in the basket.”
While his rookie season with the Heat was limited to just 15 games, the Michigan alum made the most of his time with the Skyforce, averaging 21.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3 assists with 51% field goal, and 48% three-point averages.
Those thirty-three games would be the last thirty-three games Robinson would ever play in Sioux Falls.
Armed with a guaranteed contract for the 2019-20 season, Robinson found himself thrust into the Heat’s starting lineup for 68 of the 73 games he played.
Proving that all the extra hours of shooting practice were worth it, Robinson became one of the best long-range shooters in the NBA, nailing 44.6% of his shots from three. Although his numbers dropped slightly during the NBA (COVID) Playoffs, his dead-eye shooting helped to propel the Heat to the 2020 Finals against the LA Lakers.
On the NBA’s biggest stage, he was representing what’s possible for small school athletes.
“In a way, I feel like I can show just how good small college basketball can be,” Robinson said. “A lot of people don’t understand.”
While the Heat were not able to replicate their success from the previous season, Robinson did have another impressive season, one that resulted in a 5-year, $90 million deal, the most ever for an undrafted player.
Never known for his defensive abilities, Robinson got benched in favor of Max Strus. As a shooter, the lack of minutes and reps hurt him, as his numbers dropped significantly over the next two seasons.
However, Robinson recaptured his shooting stroke during the Heat’s 2023 playoff run, one that saw him play more minutes and have more success than during the regular season.
With the off-season losses of Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Victor Oladipo, it appears as though a door has once again opened for Robinson to re-enter the Heat’s starting lineup for the 2023-24 season.
In six years, Robinson went from an unheralded high school player to an NCAA Division III star to a Division I sixth man to an NBA G-Leaguer (minus a cup of Bigface coffee) to becoming a focal point for the Miami Heat during their surprising run to the NBA Finals, not just once but twice.
Yes, he may have had a bit of a setback in the last two seasons, but judging by Robinson’s determination, he has no problem proving the naysayers wrong.
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