The evolution of Duncan Robinson

Duncan Robinson - Double Clutch illustration by Steve Leard

The Miami Heat have been at the heart of several feel-good storylines this year. 

From undrafted guard Kendrick Nunn’s regular-season finish as the runner up in the Rookie of the Year race, to fellow rookie Tyler Herro’s career performance in Game 4 of the Heat’s Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, the Heat have proved time and time again that player development is at the heart of their culture. 

Add in third-year big man, Bam Adebayo, who led the team in points (21.8), rebounds (11.0), assists (5.2), field goal percentage (60.8), and steals (1.7) in their series against the Celtics, another key pillar for the Heat is revealed: versatility on both ends of the floor. 

So when team staff took a more focused, specialist approach to shaping second-year guard Duncan Robinson’s game, it led to one of the more unique stories coming out of the 2019-20 season. 

“I still remember as he went to Sioux Falls (Skyforce) last year, I set that as a goal for him,” Head Coach Erik Spoelstra told the Miami Herald after a 135-121 rout of the Atlanta Hawks on December 10; a game in which Robinson went 10-14 from deep to tally 34 points overall. “You’ve got to try to make 10 threes a game, and if that means you shoot 30 times, you have the blessings of the Head coach.”

The coaching staff’s approach when it came to Robinson was simple. Perfect the jump shot and empower Duncan to utilise his ability to get to open spots on the floor and shoot the ball.

And the approach paid its dividends. Robinson’s jump shot now takes less than a second to execute from the catch to release. His 270 made three-pointers in the regular season, is a Heat franchise single-season record, and his 44.6 percent field goal clip from deep placed him among the top five shooters in the league. 

Robinson is deceptively quick and drives defenders crazy with his snake-like motion around ball screens and his ability to stop on a dime to rise and shoot.  This has given the Heat offense a much-needed edge and a lot of space to play with inside.  

Coming into the playoffs, Robinson struggled to stay on the court for much of the closing stretches in games, with Spoelstra instead differing to the more well rounded Herro to provide valuable crunch time scoring. 

A key factor in the decision was Robinson’s defense. Despite his size, the lanky 6-7, 215lb guard has been relatively underwhelming for much of the season when it comes to staying in front of his man, leaving team staff to routinely confront an offense-defense trade-off with him on the floor. 

The situation was exacerbated in Game 1 of the Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James routinely sought out Robinson off the screen on the offensive end and exploited the match-up. 

But if there is a reason for optimism in the Heat camp, it’s that Robinson has started to show signs of evolving his game and adapting it in a way that transforms him into a more well-rounded player. 

What follows, are just some of the little improvements Robinson has done to earn some valuable crunch time minutes. 

Diversification

With so much emphasis on Robinson’s three-point game, the second-year guard rightfully spent most of his time stationed behind the arc. The resulting numbers speak for themselves – a whopping 606 of 687 (88.20 percent) total field-goal attempts were from behind the arc in the regular season.

By comparison, three-point specialist for the Milwaukee Bucks Kyle Korver attempted a total of 759 field goals in his second year in the league while suiting up for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2004-05. Of those, 558 of the attempts (73.51 percent) were from behind the arc.   

Over the past few games, however, Robinson has ventured inside more often, rising-up for the odd mid-range jumper or finishing at the rim when the opportunity allows. This is a much welcome addition to his repertoire and a natural next step in his evolution as a scoring threat.

Playmaking

Robinson’s game is predicated on a series of catch and shoot actions or screen and dribble handoffs, allowing him the space to fire from deep. 

Per Advanced NBA stats, 75.3 percent of Robinson’s field goals came off the catch and shoot in the regular season with another 13.9 percent coming off pull-ups.  

Over the past few games against the Lakers, Robinson has shown an ability to find the open man off the dribble, out of an incomplete shot attempt, or off a touch pass. His assist average has increased to 3.3 compared to 1.3 in the regular season.

This is invaluable to the Heat offense as it leaves defenders (who were expecting Robinson to rise up and launch the shot) momentarily off balance as they scramble to get to the open man. 

Help defense

If there’s a known flaw in Robinson’s game that opposing teams have learnt to exploit, it’s his defense.  

Robinson has either struggled to stay in front of quicker guards or was too soft when guarding bigger, stronger wings. The resulting foul trouble often took him out of games. 

According to Spoelstra and the rest of the coaching staff, however, Robinson’s ability to work through his weaknesses and improve his skills when it comes to help defense is encouraging.

According to MSN, Spoelstra said, after a 109-101 loss to the Boston Celtics in January: “I can put together a highlight film of Duncan Robinson’s touch fouls, that they will never miss, with a pinky, or this, or he’s not perfect with his form. He drills on it more than anybody in this league. And he’s diligent. He’s got great technique. He has good size. We’ll just have to find a way to keep working at it and overcome it.

“I think, as he spends more time in the league, he’ll earn more respect, because he’s becoming a better team defender.”

And all the work seems to have paid off as Robinson has shown vast improvement in positioning himself better to provide effective help defense, being more energetic with his switches and physically assertive while corralling rebounds.

If there is a silver lining to a tough Finals series for the Heat, its this: team staff have done a tremendous job in spotting talent and bringing the best out of them. Through a culture of hard work and dedication, we are now beginning to see a number of these players level up on both sides of the court and Duncan Robinson is no exception.