Duncan Robinson steps into the sunlight


ERIK SPOELSTRA COULD have winged it. If anyone was qualified to give a talk on how to deal with a case of imposter syndrome, it was the former video coordinator who worked his way up to become head coach of the Miami Heat.

But Spoelstra had come to know his young sharpshooter, Duncan Robinson, well enough to understand that a heartfelt speech about believing in yourself wasn’t going to do it.

“I really wasn’t even a good high school player,” Robinson said. “I didn’t have any plays for me run in college — ever.”

And Spoelstra was talking about starting Robinson alongside free-agent acquisition Jimmy Butler?

“He’d just had a really successful summer league with us again,” Spoelstra said. “He’d broken basically all of our shooting records, and he was still struggling with his confidence and whether he belonged here.”

Spoelstra believed Robinson had the skill set to space the floor for Butler and the rest of the Heat offense. But it wasn’t going to work unless he could get Robinson to stop questioning whether he deserved to be in the role.

“You can’t have that kind of clutter when you’re out there to be a sniper,” Spoelstra said. “You have to have a clear mind.”

Spoelstra came to his meeting with Robinson last September armed with evidence: Robinson’s two games in the G-League last season with 10 made 3-pointers, 48% shooting on 3-pointers and 51% shooting on all field goals.

“I really just tried to highlight how many things that he had already done at a world-class level as a shooter,” Spoelstra said. “And then I asked him how many more would he need to do before he actually believed he was?”

Robinson listened, nodding along but obviously chewing on something else.

“That’s when we talked about imposter syndrome,” Robinson said. “I brought it up to him, like, ‘I don’t know if you ever heard of it.’

“And he goes, ‘Heard of it? I lived it.'”

The four years Spoelstra spent coaching LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were the ultimate trial-by-fire for a young coach. Spoelstra was 40 at the time, without an NBA playing career to give him gravitas with a group of veteran, superstar players and with the weight of championship expectations thrust upon him.

Yes, Heat President Pat Riley had chosen Spoelstra for the role. But that was a double-edged sword if there ever was one. Whenever the Heat stumbled, there were calls for the former Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks coach to come down from the stands and coach again.

“My first probably two or three years as a head coach, I really battled and struggled with that,” Spoelstra told Robinson. “I didn’t feel like I was ready or necessarily that I belonged.”

Robinson could relate to both the personal story and the evidence that Spoelstra presented. He appreciated the faith his coach had in him and wanted to do everything he could to make good on that.

But to do so, there was one more level he had to reach. And no pep talk was going to get him there.

IT WOULD BE easy to read Robinson’s biography and call him a late bloomer. He averaged nine points per game as a senior at Michigan, had no offers coming out of high school except for Division III Williams College and didn’t start for his high school team until his junior year.

Robinson’s so polite that he probably wouldn’t object to that description. But his best friend, Harry Rafferty, will.

“I hear people who say that all the time, and it frustrates me, as someone who’s known [Robinson] through it all,” Rafferty said. “People think it was, like, this linear journey from not playing in high school to being this good NBA player. But there were so many moments where we, and more so him, thought it was done.”

In Rafferty’s view, chalking Robinson’s success up to some growth spurt or late bloom of ability ignores his perseverance when it seemed like his dreams were fading.

“I can think of three or four right off the top of my head,” said Rafferty, who trained with Robinson throughout their high school and college years.

A game against Purdue in January 2018 was a low moment. Robinson lost his starting job midway through his senior season at Michigan and was worried his career would end on that sour note. In the game against Purdue, he had played just eight minutes and scored five points when coach John Beilein yanked him for a poor defensive performance.

“That was the absolute lowest,” Rafferty said. Robinson sent Rafferty a text after the game asking if he could come over. “It was like 11:30, midnight. He comes over, and it was as dejected as I’ve seen him, maybe ever, after basketball.”

They talked for a while. Then they found a Netflix special called “Make Happy” by Bo Burnham so they could just make small talk.

Both of them were losing faith. Rafferty paused the show. He could tell Robinson was fighting back tears.

“So what do we do now?” Robinson asked.

As Robinson’s best friend, Rafferty knew he needed to come up with something good to say, but he’d been fighting the same kind of doubt. He was a year out of college, living in a tiny apartment, making no money and training in the middle of the night at Michigan on the faint hope that he could hook on with a G-League or international team.

“I was like, ‘Dunc, this is just one of those moments where you’ve got to decide: Are you going to keep doing this, or are you going to give up?'” Rafferty said.

Robinson didn’t answer. When the show ended, Rafferty went to train, and Robinson drove back to his apartment.

“All night I thought, ‘I hope I didn’t mess that up,'” Rafferty said.

Around 7:30 a.m., he got a text from Robinson.

“‘We got to keep going.'”

ROBINSON TELLS THE story a bit differently. He says he was as demoralized as Rafferty said. But quitting basketball was never a consideration.

“I was only gonna stop playing when I no longer could,” Robinson said. “If some things had gone differently, I would still play the game, even if I wasn’t in the NBA.”

Like if he didn’t transfer from Williams College to Michigan?

“I would 100 percent be playing in some second division in Lithuania right now for $1,200 a month,” he said. “It would be a grind, but I’m sure I would love it and not regret a second of it.”

Robinson left Williams because Mike Maker, the coach who recruited him, got a job at Marist (Division I). If Maker had stayed, Robinson probably would have, too. And then, who knows how much of a look the NBA would have given him?

“I still love those guys, and I’m close with a handful of them,” Robinson said. “But they would get summer internships in New York City with investment banks or on political campaigns. And I was like, ‘Uh, how am I supposed to get better if I’m doing a 40-hour work week?’

“That’s not a knock on those guys. Because those guys found ways to work on their games and get better, and a few of them had the same itch to be in the gym as I did. They just didn’t see the logic in devoting so much time to it. And in fairness to them, there wasn’t much logic to it at the time.”

Only five Division III players had made it to the NBA before Robinson’s meteoric rise with the Heat this season. He’s the only player in the league in the top 10 this season in both 3-pointers attempted (606) and 3-point percentage (.446). In Game 2 of the Heat’s first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Robinson hit 3-pointers on Miami’s first two possessions, then drained five more to tie a Heat playoff record with seven made 3s and join Robert Horry as the only two players in postseason history with seven-plus 3-pointers without attempting a 2-pointer.

Perhaps more importantly, Robinson’s development has made up for several costly free-agency mistakes by the Heat. Miami signed a combined $148 million in contracts in 2016 to Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside and a $52 million contract in 2017 to Dion Waiters. All three have since been traded or waived, having been effectively replaced by Robinson, who is on the books for $1.4 million this season.

Robinson is the embodiment not only of the Heat’s culture of player development but also of Miami’s mastery of the modern NBA offense.

A decade or two ago, 6-foot-8 forwards such as Robinson would have been considered “tweeners” — too small to hang with burly power forwards such as Amar’e Stoudemire and too slow to hang with small forwards such as Grant Hill.

But Spoelstra and the great Heat teams of 2010-14 helped usher in the modern pace-and-space game, in which shooters such as Robinson are invaluable.

“I’m very aware of the fact that so many things had to break my way,” Robinson said. “I think that alone will make you very appreciative of every opportunity.”

THE HEAT SAW his drive the first time they scouted Robinson — well, the first time they officially scouted him at a pre-draft workout.

“I was familiar with him because of following Michigan in the tournament,” Spoelstra said. “But I’ll be honest, I didn’t think necessarily that he was good enough.”

Most agents didn’t, either. Robinson drew interest from agents who represented mostly overseas players. The only NBA agent who showed interest was Jason Glushon.

“It was actually my mom, Elisabeth, who was like, ‘What are you talking about? Of course you’re going to sign with Jason,'” Robinson said. “‘What has your whole career been about up until this point? It’s been put yourself in the best [situation] and see if you can last.'”

Glushon set up workouts with a half-dozen teams, and Robinson’s trainer, AJ Diggs, who now works for the Pelicans, put him through the ringer. He played full-court defense and shot on the move when he was tired. Heat scout Chet Kammerer caught Robinson at a group workout at LMU and was blown away. He called Spoelstra and said he’d just witnessed one of the best shooting performances he’d ever seen.

“Chet was so insistent on it, I just took his word for it,” Spoelstra said. The night before the 2018 draft, Spoelstra called Robinson to say the Heat would love to sign him to their summer league team if he weren’t taken in the first two rounds.

Although there was a sting of disappointment when he went undrafted, Robinson was grateful that the Heat and Lakers offered him summer league spots. Ultimately, he chose the Heat because of their history of player development and his potential fit in Spoelstra’s offense.

“Immediately we saw incredible drive and incredible professionalism,” said Chris Quinn, the Heat’s director of player development. “Someone that’s going to check every box he can to be the best he can be. If it came down to extra shots, if it came down to extra work on his defense, if it came down to eating right, sleeping right, any box he could, he was going to do it.”

In September of that year, Spoelstra said that when the coaches talked about Robinson, they vowed to do everything they could to help him succeed.

“Everybody talks about having a work ethic, but Duncan has such a unique persistence to his work ethic,” Spoelstra said. “It’s an obsession, really. It’s not just a work ethic. He’s obsessed about the entire process. If you have somebody like that who already has just a beautiful shot, and he’s 6-[foot]-8, not 6-[foot]-3, the other things will improve if you’re just consistent with it.”

Helping a player such as Robinson is what player development coaches such as Quinn live for. But they sometimes have a funny way of showing it.

Throughout that year, Quinn and shooting coach Rob Fodor paid close attention to Robinson as he shuttled between Miami and G-League affiliate Sioux Falls. At one game they saw, Robinson did not pursue loose balls with the kind of vigor the Heat expect.

“We saw a couple things that bothered us,” Fodor said with a giant grin creeping across his face. “So we kind of invented some fun drills for him.”

Quinn’s and Fodor’s favorite was a drill in which Robinson would sit underneath the basket, facing the baseline so he couldn’t see where they were throwing the loose balls. He had to dive for them as he saw them out of the periphery of his eyes, then slap them back inbounds.

“We were trying to get him to understand his life in the NBA was not going to be stationary,” Fodor said. “And that he had to be able to play absolutely full speed all the time.”

Fordor and Quinn both smiled as they retold that story.

“To his credit,” Quinn said, “he handled it really well.”

SPOELSTRA NEVER SHARED with Robinson how he got over his imposter syndrome because he believes the final leg of that journey is personal.

Spoelstra didn’t figure it out until the summer after James left the Heat in 2014. In one sense, the pressure was off. In another, there was even more pressure to prove that he could succeed without the group of superstars.

Spoelstra went to Hawaii to rest and clear his head. It had been an incredible four years, but it had also been draining. Every part of him had been tested.

“I had a big, six-week reflection on my purpose in this profession,” Spoelstra said. “And I really connected with this idea that my purpose was just to serve and help guys like Duncan achieve their dreams and to be able to help our organization develop teams and a culture that we believe in.

“That was the biggest transformation for me. It’s a compass. And after that, I didn’t give it a thought about the imposter syndrome.”

It’s a bit unnatural to Robinson to carry himself with a sense of self-importance. This is a guy who still drives the Jeep he leased in college, the one in which he shuttled people around as an Uber driver. This is a guy who bought a Louis Vuitton bag, then had his sister return it after a week because “it just didn’t feel genuine or like me at all.” Robinson preferred his old Michigan backpack because “it was kinda like this metaphorical chip I always carried around on my shoulder.”

Spoelstra and the Heat are fine with all that. But for Robinson’s gravity to be felt on offense, he had to take himself more seriously on the court.

“I mean, some of the shots I take now I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking when I first put on a Heat uniform,” Robinson said. “I would’ve been like, ‘Who am I to take that shot?’ Some undrafted guy who averaged nine points a game his senior year in college.”

Spoelstra never used the term imposter syndrome when Robinson talked like that. The coach just showed his player — with tape and statistical evidence — how much it hurt the Heat’s offense when he passed up shots.

“Last year he would turn down shots, like, ‘Am I allowed to shoot this? Should this ball go to Dwayne?'” Spoelstra said. “We had to teach him that it’s not about the makes. It’s about hunting for the attempts.”

How did Spoelstra reach Robinson?

“I yanked him for not shooting,” Spoelstra said. “And Quinnie, he was unmerciful, just berating of him if he turned down open shots. Just screaming at him, ‘You’re scared. What are you doing? You’re not out there to set screens or be a ball mover.'”

It was tough love. But it was love nonetheless. And Robinson thrived.

“He coaches me hard, and I love that,” Robinson said of Spoelstra. “That’s part of what pushes me and gets the best out of me.

“He’s about building up and expecting a lot and holding people accountable, for sure. Offensively, the only time he yells at me is when I don’t shoot.”

That’s because when Robinson doesn’t shoot, he doesn’t exert a gravitational pull on the defense, which then doesn’t open up space for Butler and everybody else.

“It’s my job to make shots,” Robinson said. “But the big shift is that I understand it’s actually my job to take these shots.”

And he finally believes that he deserves to be the guy taking them.

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