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Duncan Robinson is redefining what an NBA player can be

Duncan Robinson might be the NBA’s biggest underdog and most unique player. The Heat have another diamond in the rough.

There’s no one in the NBA who plays like Duncan Robinson. That makes sense, considering there’s no one in the NBA who got there the way Robinson did.

The Heat forward is putting together one of the greatest shooting seasons of all-time in his first full year in the league. Robinson is hitting 44.6 percent of his shots from behind the arc, but his accuracy alone doesn’t capture the impact of his shooting. What makes Robinson special is his accuracy on such immense volume. Of his 9.3 field goal attempts per game, 8.1 come from three-point range. It’s helped him compile a 67.4 true shooting percentage that ranks top-10 in the NBA and has him tied for the lead with any non-center.

Robinson was at his best as the Heat beat the Magic on Wednesday. He finished the game with 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting, with every attempt coming from three-point range. It was the third time Robinson had hit nine or more threes in a single game — joining Stephen Curry, James Harden, Klay Thompson, and Buddy Hield as the only players to ever do it.

This was the 77th game of Robinson’s NBA career and it put him at 235 made threes. No player has ever hit that many three-pointers in so few games.

To most NBA fans, Robinson has come out of nowhere. Last season, he was mostly known as an undrafted free agent who became a G League standout, and played in 15 games with the Heat at the end of the year. His growth this season is perhaps the greatest example of the Heat’s esteemed culture and the ability of Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley to uncover and develop diamonds in the rough.

Of course, Robinson’s story is so much bigger than that. College basketball fans know all about it from Robinson’s days at Michigan, where he helped lead the team to the 2018 national championship game. He came to Michigan after initially starting his career at the DIII level with Williams Ephs. He may have stuck with Williams his entire career if the Pistons didn’t hire Jeff Bower as general manager in 2014. Bower was the head coach at low-major Marist at the time. When Marist hired Robinson’s coach at Williams, it opened the door for transfer opportunities.

It was unprecedented for a DIII player to jump up to high-major college basketball and excel. To see that same player now become a vital part of an NBA contender is even more mind-blowing.

This is how Robinson has done it:

Robinson almost never takes a two-point shot

Robinson is a three-point specialist in every way. Right now, 88 percent of his field goal attempts come from three-point range. That’s the highest three-point rate in the history of the NBA, per Basketball-Reference. It is no coincidence that the Miami Heat players have four of the top-seven three-point rate seasons ever since Spoelstra became head coach.

In so many ways, Robinson and the Heat are a match made in heaven. Spoelstra runs Robinson off a variety of floppy sets, stagger screens, and pin downs to get him open and create space for everyone else. Robinson is a master at staying in constant motion and moving off the ball.

Robinson’s ability to get himself open from three and make shots other players wouldn’t even think about taking has made him incredibly efficient on just about every type of play. Per Synergy Sports:

  • Robinson ranks in the 93rd percentile off spot-ups
  • He ranks in the 96th percentile off hand-offs
  • He ranks in the 93rd percentile in transition
  • He ranks in the 98th percentile off cuts
  • He ranks in the 84th percentile on “guarded” catch-and-shoot attempts and in the 96th percentile on unguarded attempts

All this for a player who averages 1.1 field-goal attempts from two-point range per game. The NBA has seen a lot of great shooting specialists come through the ranks over the last two decades, but none of them have ever been quite as good at it as Robinson already is.

Robinson has a huge impact on the Heat’s success

The Heat have gone from missing the playoffs to one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference for plenty of different reasons. Signing a superstar in Jimmy Butler is probably the biggest. The development of Bam Adebayo into arguably the best young center in the league is another. But don’t discount Robinson’s impact on influencing his team’s success.

Robinson leads the Heat in net-rating at +7.2 when he’s in the game. The Heat’s offense — currently No. 7 in the NBA — jumps up to No. 2 when he’s on the floor. Robinson is also a staple in most of the Heat’s top lineups. He’s in three of Miami’s four best lineups and in seven of the top 11.

Miami has also has the top halfcourt offense in the league since the NBA All-Star break. Robinson’s constant motion and shooting ability has its finger prints all over that, too.

Defenses can’t let Robinson have an inch of space, otherwise they are likely going to surrender three points. The defensive attention he attracts lets his teammates have wide-open paths to the basket. There have been so many plays like this one for the Heat this season:

Robinson’s quick trigger and relentless dedication to firing threes gives him star-level gravity for a role player. The Heat wouldn’t be this good without it.

What Robinson is doing is special

Spoelstra knew he had a unique player when he saw Robinson in training camp this year. No one could have predicted he would be so right.

It isn’t just his head coach vouching for Robinson. Andre Iguodala famously said he thought Robinson was a ball boy the first time he saw him in practice with Miami. The quote ends with him calling Robinson “easily the best shooter I’ve ever played with.”

Iguodala was once teammates with a man named Stephen Curry, so excuse his hyperbole or momentary lapse in judgement. Robinson is no Curry because he isn’t a star. But for a role-player under contract for only $1.4 million this season and $1.6 million next year, he’s having a massive impact that has helped push the Heat towards the top of the standings in the East. All-in-one advanced metrics like PIPM and RAPTOR WAR confirm his impact. He’s a top-30 player in the NBA this season in both metrics.

The Heat found a true diamond in the rough with Robinson. His story couldn’t have unfolded any other way.