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How Did the NBA Overlook One of the Best Shooters in Basketball?

Every team needs 3-point shooting, yet few even gave Duncan Robinson an honest look. But the Heat believed in his potential, and got him to believe in it too.

Cody Pearson

The life of an NBA scout can lead down a winding, frozen road in small-town Lithuania, through the claustrophobic gym of a Rust Belt mid-major, or, on this particular occasion, to a pre-draft workout just a few miles from home. Chet Kammerer—a longtime talent evaluator with the Heat based in Southern California—barely had to leave his own backyard to satisfy his curiosity about Duncan Robinson. Over three years, he had alternated between hot and cold in his assessment of the Michigan forward, whose game had proved similarly inconstant. There were games when Robinson’s 3-point shooting from the corners strained defenses exactly as intended. And then there were others where the oldest, most experienced player in Michigan’s lineup would stand idly on the margins, contributing little. The opportunity to watch Robinson in a workout setting would perhaps provide some clarity.

In the spring of 2018, Kammerer looked on as Robinson, backdropped by wooden bleachers, put up jumper after jumper. There were the spot-up 3s that had accounted for most of Robinson’s collegiate diet, but also shots from handoffs and pin-downs, off the dribble and on a sprint in the open court. “It wasn’t just country-club shooting,” Kammerer says. The 3s came from everywhere. At a certain point, Kammerer stopped tracking Robinson’s makes and noted only if he missed two shots in a row. For the rest of the workout, he rarely did.

“I’ve been with the Heat now for 24 years,” Kammerer says. “I have never seen a guy shoot the ball like that for that length of time from every different way.”

Sixty-four college seniors had taken part in the Portsmouth Invitational just weeks earlier to showcase their talents to scores of pro scouts. Robinson did not participate. Sixty-nine prospects would later gather in Chicago for the annual draft combine—a parade of interviews, screenings, and exhibitions that provide NBA teams with the latest intelligence. Robinson was not invited. Kammerer had seen Robinson’s first workout for an NBA team, and he had been the only scout in an otherwise empty gym. He couldn’t even make it the few miles home before calling Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, his curiosity giving way to enthusiasm.

“At that point,” Kammerer says, “I was just hoping that he wouldn’t get drafted.”

The universe played along. Robinson slipped through the cracks of the draft and signed a summer league deal with the Heat based on their history of finding the talent in unheralded players. After two years in Miami’s developmental program, the shooter that no team thought to draft is now a starter in the Eastern Conference finals. Even more remarkably: Robinson earned his place in that series based on the very skill the teams that overlooked him have made a priority.

Misjudging up-and-coming players is an unavoidable part of the draft process—the natural byproduct of basketball’s soft science. Yet when 29 other teams passed on Robinson, they passed on a player who would soon become one of the most prolific long-range shooters the league has ever seen. There has never been a stranger time for NBA teams, in their spacing obsession, to collectively miss the deadeye shooter right in front of them. But miss they did; only five players have ever made more 3-pointers in a season than Robinson did this year, in his first campaign as a full-time member of the Heat. Among those five, only Stephen Curry shot a higher percentage. It should be lost on no one—least of all those working in player personnel—that Robinson came into the league through a blind spot only to find statistical company in a two-time MVP.

How did this happen? How could the wider basketball scouting community, with all its resources and wealth of experience, come to believe that a shooter capable of making history wasn’t even a sure NBA player in the first place? Robinson knows the answer, in large part because he once believed it himself.

Florida State v Michigan
Robinson makes a 3-pointer during Michigan’s second-round matchup against Florida State in the 2018 tournament
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Heat may never have found Robinson if not for Charlie Villanueva and Josh Smith. Back in 2014, Robinson was a standout freshman playing at Williams College, a rigorous liberal arts school nestled into the forests of New England, just a few hours’ drive from his childhood home. He was drawn to Williams by its academic reputation. It also happened to be one of the top Division III programs in the country—one that Robinson pushed forward with another trip to the national championship game, the school’s fourth appearance in 12 years. Yet as Robinson was gearing up for his sophomore season, Mike Maker, the coach who had recruited him to Williams, was offered the head-coaching job at Marist College. That vacancy was created when the Detroit Pistons hired away Jeff Bower, Marist’s previous coach, to be their new general manager. A painful and expensive stretch had finally caught up to Pistons team president Joe Dumars, who chased six straight trips to the conference finals with a five-year run in which Detroit never won more than 30 games in a season. Villanueva and Smith were given lavish contracts that facilitated Detroit’s underachievement and, ultimately, Dumars’s undoing.

Maker took the job at Marist, and Robinson—the Division III Rookie of the Year—began to explore his options. After touring around, he narrowed down his transfer list to three schools: Davidson, the alma mater of Stephen Curry; Creighton, the college home of Kyle Korver; and Michigan, a big-time program that had just sent five players to the NBA. This was an enormous leap for Robinson, who had been so lightly recruited out of high school that he needed a postgrad year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire just to find his way to Williams in the first place. It swung his decision when John Beilein, a former Division III coach himself, offered him a scholarship to play in Ann Arbor.

“Knowing that a kid is averaging 19 points as a freshman and leads his team to the national championship game,” Beilein says, “you don’t have to be that crazy to think this kid can play for us.”

In his first days on campus, Robinson scorched the nets in shooting drills, challenging records set by Nik Stauskas—whom the Kings had just selected with the eighth pick in the 2014 draft. It was an auspicious start for a transfer, and after redshirting for a season to meet NCAA requirements, Robinson quickly became a starter for the Wolverines on the strength of his shooting. From there, his career grew complicated. Playing at Michigan afforded Robinson the chance to compete on the biggest stage in college basketball while simultaneously refuting the idea that he could ever play in the NBA. Robinson lost his starting job not once but twice—the second time to a player four years his junior. “I’m sure he was disappointed,” Beilein says. “But he came off the bench and we were a better team because of it. That’s who he is.”

After a run to the Sweet 16 in Robinson’s junior season, Beilein asked the NBA’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee—a panel of team executives who offer anonymous feedback for players considering the draft—to evaluate Robinson as a prospect. Most players are given a percentage breakdown of where the panelists believe they’ll be selected: in the lottery, later in the first round, in the second round (divided into halves), or even if they’re expected to go undrafted. Robinson was an exceptional case. “They did not have a rating on him,” Beilein says. “Which means that no one ever considered him being a pro.”

And why would they? At the time, Robinson was a 23-year-old stretch 4 who had managed just 7.7 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. College offenses can be overly complicated and self-stifling, but Michigan ran a modern, four-out attack driven by the high pick-and-roll. More than 45 percent of the Wolverines’ shot attempts came from beyond the arc, a proportion that—allowing for a shorter 3-point line—would outpace the majority of NBA teams. Robinson, however, was not a driver of that offense; he was an accessory to it.

“I was asked to be a floor spacer, and basically draw the attention of one defender—in the corner, for the most part—and let everyone else play four-on-four,” Robinson says. “I wasn’t involved in a lot of the action, and that was a strategic choice by Coach Beilein. He wasn’t wrong for it. We were really good, and we won a lot of games.”

That’s what matters most. Yet for the scouts who considered Robinson at all, Michigan’s reputation for showcasing professional-level talent may have worked against him. In the past seven years, eight Michigan players have been selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Only five schools have produced more first-round picks overall. This wasn’t a case of a player striving in obscurity; Robinson was a part of a huge program in a major conference that made long, celebrated tournament runs. The wealth of talent at a school like Kentucky has sometimes masked the skills of future NBA stars. Michigan, under Beilein, was known for uncovering them.

“We played a lot of national TV games,” Robinson says. “So I feel like a lot of people understood who I was as a player—or thought they understood who I was as a player.”

The same system that put Stauskas in the spotlight and teased Caris LeVert’s potential moved Robinson to the edge of relevance. When a pro scout would stop by the Crisler Center for a big game, they might see Robinson attempt just three shots in 24 minutes without so much as an assist, steal, or block. Even some who believed in his shooting found it difficult to see how the skinny forward hanging off to the side of a college offense would make a meaningful contribution to an NBA team. Robinson wasn’t entirely sure, either. All he knew was that when he would spot up for possession after possession at Michigan, he could feel the edges of his role.

“There’s always that competitive drive of a player,” he says, “to think that I could have done more if asked.”

After a loss in the 2018 national championship game to end his senior season—in which he averaged just 9.2 points per game—Robinson went to work to prove it. For eight weeks he trained with AJ Diggs, now a development coach for the Pelicans, so that he might show teams a different player than the one they saw on tape. Robinson toiled through every demanding, high-intensity session under the expectation he would not be drafted; the goal was to join the right team through the side door, parlaying a summer league spot into a training camp invite and a real opportunity to make an NBA roster. “I was able to get 10 or 12 workouts, which at that point I was thrilled about,” Robinson says. As it turned out, he needed only one.

The night before the draft, Robinson’s phone rang. It was Spoelstra. “He was the only coach to call me,” Robinson says. Spoelstra told him about Kammerer, and the other side of the workout that Robinson had experienced through a trance state of swished jumpers. He noted that Miami didn’t have a pick in the draft, but extended the exact kind of opportunity Robinson had been looking for. “We’d love to have you for summer league,” Spoelstra said.

In Robinson, some scouts saw the next Steve Novak—the kind of limited, standstill shooter that has been filtered out of the league by natural selection. Some saw a player who would already be 24 years old on the day of the draft and hadn’t produced in the way younger prospects had. Some saw a defensive liability, or a limited athlete. Some saw a specialist who, in his senior season, made just 38.4 percent of his 3-pointers—a mark that ranked 287th among college players. Some saw a prospect so far outside the consensus that drafting him could get a general manager fired.

“I guess,” Beilein says, “people didn’t see what Miami saw in him.”

Miami Heat v Indiana Pacers - Game Two
Robinson gets a shot up against the Pacers during their first-round series in August
Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Before Robinson had played a single game for the Heat summer league team, he was already driving the coaching staff crazy. Miami’s featured players for the exhibition slate were Bam Adebayo, who was building on his rookie season by handling the ball and running inverted pick-and-rolls during practices, and Derrick Jones Jr., a reality-bending athlete who was working to round out his game. It was Robinson’s job to shoot when the ball came his way, and yet the undrafted, unproven rookie kept looking for reasons not to.

“At that point, he was shot-faking to death,” says Eric Glass, who coached the Heat in summer league. After imploring Robinson to shoot and getting nowhere, Glass moved to what is now a time-honored tradition for the fitness-obsessed Heat: punishing a shooter’s hesitation with calisthenics. Spoelstra would make Wayne Ellington, the Heat’s designated shooter from 2016 to 2019, run sprints after every pump fake until the coach broke him of the habit. If Robinson so much as blinked on the catch, the summer Heat coaches would stop practice and have him do push-ups. At one point, Adebayo stopped a drill himself to exact the toll from his new teammate.

This was all part of Miami’s design. The first step for Robinson wasn’t to shed his defender, put the ball on the floor, and make The Right Play™. “No,” Glass says. “You get in there, and when you’re open, you shoot it every single time. That was an evolution that he had to learn.”

Robinson had the option to play for the Lakers in summer league, but preferred the opportunity he saw with the Heat. “I wanted to go to a place that didn’t have a ton of young guys or a ton of young draft picks,” Robinson says. “The Heat kinda fit the bill.” He would have faced long odds to make the roster of a team that already had Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Alex Caruso, and Svi Mykhailiuk under contract—along with Ivica Zubac and Robinson’s Michigan teammate, Mo Wagner. Miami’s relative scarcity of young perimeter talent afforded Robinson a different level of attention.

Most of the teams Robinson met with during the pre-draft process discussed some version of the same proposal. “‘Look, you shoot at a really high level,’” Robinson recounts. “‘You have that skill. How can we grow your game in other areas to kind of surround that?’” Spoelstra, on the other hand, had the intention of elevating what Robinson already did best. The way to make him the most dangerous shooter on the floor was to remove the guard rails that kept Robinson in the corners—to erase his instinct toward self-restraint.

“There are some guys, you just put ’em on any court and they can just hoop,” Robinson says. “They can just be who they are. I’m not really that way. A big part of my career has been really growing that deep, inner belief that I’m good enough.” A lanky teenager had to convince himself he could play at Williams College; a Division III transfer had to believe he was worthy of a spot in one of the biggest college basketball programs in the country; and a 24-year-old senior who knew he wouldn’t be drafted had to talk himself into the idea that he could find a place in the NBA.

Thus began what Glass calls the “most extensive” player development program that he’s encountered during his 10 years with the Heat. Miami signed Robinson to its roster as a two-way player in the summer of 2018, and threw him into the gauntlet—starting with offseason training and continuing with a business trip to South Dakota.

The Sioux Falls Skyforce are based more than a thousand miles away from Miami, the farthest geographical distance between any NBA team and its direct G League affiliate. Considering how many of those G League operations have been relocated in recent years by their parent franchises, it’s fair to assume that the Skyforce are kept willfully remote. There is instructive value in having young players make the trek from Miami International to Joe Foss Field, the seven-gate mixed-use airport half a country away. It has become part of the Heat experience for those on the fringes of the roster to bounce between the shine of life on South Beach and winds so frigid and intense that they sometimes make it impossible to even open the door to the practice gym.

Robinson’s rookie season played out in that balance. The majority of his time was spent down in the G League, where then–head coach Nevada Smith—who had previously taken the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to the vanguard of the 3-point revolution—emboldened Robinson to hunt for his shot. Development, in the eyes of the Heat, began with volume. “Every time he could see the rim,” Smith says, “they wanted it going up.” When Robinson took eight 3-pointers in a game, Smith would push him for 10 in the next. If he took 10, Smith might press him for 15. “He basically made it nonnegotiable that every night, I had to go out and be aggressive,” Robinson says. By season’s end, Robinson would average more 3-point attempts per game (9.8) than any other G League regular while setting the new franchise record for single-season 3-point percentage (48.3).

On defense, he was given the toughest assignments in another play for volume. The only way to get Robinson up to NBA speed was to have him chase shooters, wall up in isolation, and fight through as many ball screens as the schedule could offer. After Skyforce games, Spoelstra would text Smith for an update on Robinson’s progress. He always wanted to know about his defense.

The Heat would recall Robinson from time to time, and Spoelstra would throw him into live game action alongside NBA veterans. This has also become a rite of passage; when Jones was playing on a two-way contract the season prior, Miami called him up from Sioux Falls only to make him the primary defender against James Harden that same day. If Robinson was on the active roster, he could—without warning—find his way onto the court for 10 or 20 meaningful minutes. Rarely has Spoelstra seemed so proud as when Robinson went 1-for-7 from beyond the arc in a high-stakes game last season that the Heat needed to keep their playoff hopes alive.

“He’s an elite shooter—one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen,” Spoelstra told reporters afterward. “But you have to show the courage to keep on shooting it.”

Getting to that point took the work of an entire staff. Smith helped Robinson to find his inner gunner; Heat assistant coaches Chris Quinn and Rob Fodor turned every practice into a battleground; Eric Foran, Miami’s strength coach, gave Robinson the tools to survive on defense by working on his lateral quickness; and Spoelstra invested in the progress of an undrafted player on a two-way contract as if he were a rising star.

“We believe in those kinds of stories,” Spoelstra says. “We’ve had a lot of guys come through here on a similar path. And this started with Pat [Riley]. He’s always believed in the player development program and giving guys a chance, going back to his Knicks days with [John] Starks and [Anthony] Mason. Guys that had to come up a different way.” Hassan Whiteside played pro ball in Chengdu and Tripoli before finding a place with the Heat—and, eventually, a four-year, $98 million contract. Josh Richardson didn’t even crack the top 100 ranking for his high school class, flew under the radar for four years at Tennessee, and then slipped to the 40th pick in the 2015 draft. He built a career in Miami as one of the league’s top perimeter defenders and became the centerpiece in Miami’s trade for Jimmy Butler. Udonis Haslem didn’t have the proportions of an NBA player when he left the University of Florida. Now, after 17 years and three championships with the Heat, he leads the huddle in critical playoff games.

“Some people look for youth, experience,” Butler says, grasping at some explanation for how a player like Robinson could go undrafted. “It ain’t my job to do all that. But I know that the Miami Heat look for those diamonds in the rough: guys with that grit, that dog, that underdog mentality, all of that. We’ve got a roster full of ’em.”

The Heat are the kind of franchise that looks at a rim-running center and sees a game-changing playmaker. They watched Tyler Herro live on catch-and-shoot jumpers in Lexington and redirected his game to the point that he now, as a rookie, runs his own pick-and-rolls to sustain Miami’s fourth-quarter offense.

(When discussing Robinson with people in the league, Herro tends to come up, one way or another—if only for their contrast in playing personality. One Heat staffer described Herro’s confidence as an “aura.” It’s rare to see a first-year player closing out playoff games—much less having plays run for him to knock down shots in crunch time.)

Player development, like scouting, is an act of imagination. Anyone could see that Robinson was a good—if limited—shooter. Understanding how that shooting could be unlocked with motion, however, required creativity. It took vision. Spoelstra understood that the way to maximize a shooter is to make him accessible. “I’m put in so much more action,” Robinson says. “A lot of times it’s a decoy, but the reality is with how we play, it’s never actually a decoy. Everything is always live. As a result, it just creates a lot of overreactions. When you see the way the NBA is going, obviously there’s such an emphasis around shooting 3s. So as a result, there’s such an emphasis around stopping good 3s from being taken.”

Where other players drop weight to meet Miami’s strict fitness standards, Spoelstra challenged Robinson during the offseason to add 10 pounds. You can see the difference when a defender makes contact. The lighter Robinson—the G League Robinson—could run a perfect curl to ready himself for a shot, only for an opponent to throw off his footwork with a single bump. Ten pounds later, Robinson is still slight by NBA standards but more resilient in his routes. Defenses are compelled to lunge in his direction while giving up wide-open dunks to the Heat’s two All-Stars.

Miami has made clever use of a number of excellent shooters—Ellington, Ray Allen, and Mike Miller chief among them. Robinson is operating on a totally different scale. The core misunderstanding of Robinson’s NBA potential came from overlooking all that his height would make possible. It’s hard to challenge the shot of a 6-foot-8 shooter after fighting through staggered screens. It’s not as easy as it seems to iso and score on a player that long, particularly when he’s spent two years working on his body and sharpening his disposition. Those qualities have allowed Robinson to give the Heat 26 good minutes a night through their first two series, a playoff commodity worth eight figures on the open market. In just two years, Robinson has developed into the kind of shooter the Heat, due to some salary gridlock of their own making, would never have been able to afford in 2018. His ascent doubles as creative problem solving.

Even still, Robinson has to contend with his own nagging doubt as to whether he really belongs competing for a spot in the NBA Finals. Years of fighting the same battles (and ongoing work with a mental coach) have at least made clear where he can find relief. “For me,” Robinson says, “it really comes from two places: My work ethic and my habits and knowing that I’m prepared for opportunities—knowing that I’m deserving of them and that I’ve put in the time; then, the other one is actually experiencing success, seeing it come to fruition. There’s no substitute for that.”

Miami, then, may be its own peace of mind. It’s hard to imagine a more successful start to Robinson’s career than historic 3-point shooting in service of a long playoff run. Every streaking jumper is a reminder that his game has become a collaborative project. Robinson transformed who he was as a player to bring a coach’s abstraction to life. The Heat, in kind, gave him the power to prove he belongs.

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