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Justin Robinson is Duke’s unexpected walk-on hero

The Hall of Famer’s son is the stretch big Duke has needed all season.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Robinson, a fifth-year senior walk-on who didn’t play 10 minutes in a game this season until Feb. 25, might be the final piece Duke men’s basketball has been searching for all season to win the NCAA tournament. If Sunday night’s win over North Carolina showed anything, it was Robinson’s ability to step up in big moments and shoot from deep. The 23-year-old scored 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting from deep to beat UNC, 89-76. He also added six rebounds, three assists, a steal and four blocks.

In the last three games, Duke’s coach Mike Krzyzewski has given Robinson — the son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson — playing time he’s never received before, and he’s heated up. To beat NC State, he scored 10 points on five shots with six rebounds. In a loss to Wake Forest, he scored six points on as many shots.

Senior Night against UNC was Robinson’s big breakout moment, though. He played a career-high 25 minutes in one of sports’ biggest rivalries, and after sinking 15 threes in his entire career, he knocked down four in one night. This is from a player who was considered a three-star recruit, and averaged five minutes per game for his entire Duke tenure.

”It’s better than ‘Rudy,’” Krzyzewski said, comparing Robinson’s play to the story of Notre Dame’s football walk-on, according to ESPN. “It’s almost like a movie. He’s been outstanding, and hopefully he keeps it going.”

That’s an exaggeration, but Robinson’s rise is something nobody could’ve seen coming.

Robinson could help Duke win the NCAA tournament

Robinson’s role as a 6’9 rim-protector who can shoot is extremely important for the Blue Devils.

The 2019-20 Duke team isn’t like most others. There’s no Zion Williamson or Marvin Bagley III or Jayson Tatum to anchor the group. Duke is a sum of good, but not elite, talent, and that’s led to a good, but not great, season by their standards, with a 25-6 record and probable tournament two-seed.

“My staff just said, ‘We have to give him a shot,’” Krzyzewski said of Robinson, according to The News & Observer. “‘We need him, we need him.’ He cannot only play at the four, but he can play small at the five, because he can shoot, it stretches the defense.”

A stretch big is exactly who the Blue Devils need. In his last few appearances, Robinson’s taken minutes from forwards Jack White, Javin DeLaurier and Matthew Hurt, and that may continue.

The floor shrinks when White and DeLaurier play, as the former is shooting just 33 percent, and the latter is a non-factor from distance. White’s season is a career-best from three, and DeLaurier is 2-of-16 for his career. Hurt is a solid shooter, but the freshman struggles on the defensive end.

Robinson is the perfect combination of shooting and inside rim protection. He isn’t super quick, but he’s steady on his feet to get a hand involved in every shot from the field. He doesn’t have the quickest shot, but when he has time and space to fire it off, he’s been efficient. He has soft touch, as seen by the three he banked against UNC, and a second one that danced around the rim.

Even if he isn’t a tournament factor, this has been an incredible stretch for Robinson

Robinson never expected to be in this position, even as recently as a month ago. Yet he made his mark in the UNC-Duke rivalry with his performance on Sunday. He was one of the best players on the court, and his floor-spacing made the difference.

“It makes me feel so proud of him,” his father, David, said. “I don’t know how I would’ve responded in the situation, but he’s been unbelievable.”

This was a special close to Robinson’s collegiate career.