Winters on the New Hampshire coast can be unforgiving, so when Duncan Robinson was growing up in New Castle and outdoor basketball was no longer an option, he and his siblings would move the living room furniture to a corner and convert the space into a makeshift court until spring arrived.
“I’d be making dinner,” Robinson’s mother, Elisabeth said, “and they’d just play for hours.”
On Wednesday night, Elisabeth Robinson thought back to those cold winter nights as she sat courtside at TD Garden wearing her son’s NBA jersey and saw him introduced as a starter for the Miami Heat.
Robinson’s path to this point falls somewhere between unlikely and unfathomable, as he ultimately progressed from Division III Williams College to receiving advice from Dwyane Wade about adjusting to the NBA.
“I mean, you never want to limit yourself or what you’re capable of,” Robinson said. “I certainly didn’t expect or anticipate it necessarily, but I just try to put in the work every single day.”
Robinson still says his dribbling skills developed by using the mini hoop in his living room. When he was not practicing there, he was usually shooting at the basket outside his house, or at the school down the street, or the local rec center in New Castle, an island town of about 1,000 people that sits just east of Portsmouth.
Robinson attended high school at the Governor’s Academy in Newbury, but did not emerge as a prospect there. He attended a camp at Brandeis after his junior year, and some coaches there were intrigued by his shooting but turned off by his rail-thin frame. So he ultimately joined the prestigious AAU program, the Middlesex Magic, and after graduating from high school he enrolled at Phillips Exeter academy for a postgraduate year.
Robinson played well for both teams and helped guide Exeter to a New England Prep School Class title, but college coaches still didn’t look up from their clipboards.
So he enrolled at Williams and helped lead the Ephs to the Division III national championship game as a freshman. After the season, head coach Mike Maker was hired at Marist, so Robinson explored transfer options and ultimately landed a scholarship playing for John Beilein at Michigan.
“I’m not someone that points to these Division I coaches and says, ‘Hey, you screwed up,’” Middlesex Magic coach Mike Crotty said. “Schools like Michigan didn’t miss on him. As a 6-[foot]-6, 175-pound guy, he wasn’t ready to go to Michigan after high school. It seemed like the one way to go to Michigan was through Williams.”
Robinson had three solid if unspectacular years with the Wolverines and averaged 9.2 points per game as a senior in 2018. But at that point he was 6-7 and 215 pounds, and his long-range shooting figured to at least make him a curiosity among NBA teams.
He had about 15 pre-draft workouts and realized he would probably not be selected, but hoped he was doing enough to be noticed. One day that spring his mother returned home from work and Robinson told her that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had called to check in. He was the only NBA head coach to reach out to him during the process, and that resonated.
Eventually, the Heat, Lakers and Bucks emerged as the three teams most interested in signing Robinson as an undrafted free agent.
Los Angeles was intriguing, but rumors swirled that LeBron James could be headed there, and he is known for reshuffling rosters with veterans upon arrival. The Bucks seemed to be a good fit, but the Heat stood out a bit more, in large part because they had consistently developed and given opportunities to lesser-known players.
After playing well on the Heat’s summer league team, he signed a two-way contract with them. He spent much of last season with the team’s G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, where he averaged 21.4 points and connected on a blistering 48.3 percent of his 3-pointers.
When he was called up, he soaked up guidance from veterans like Wade, Udonis Haslem and Kelly Olynyk. And last April, Robinson signed a two-year, $3.1 million deal with the Heat.
“The situation can be everything, and I feel really good about this organization,” Robinson said. “They’ve been great with me, the support they’ve given me. Front office, coaching staff, it’s special.
“I felt like I was capable at this level. I’ve always believed that. But sometimes it just takes more of an extended opportunity.”
This season Robinson has started 16 of 21 games, helping Miami to a surprising 15-6 start. He is averaging 11.2 points per game and has made 43.5 percent of his 3-pointers, the fourth highest mark in the NBA among players with at least 135 attempts.
“I’m not surprised,” said Robinson’s agent, Jason Glushon. “You have an unbelievable kid who has an incredible work ethic, is used to being the underdog, who makes the most of every opportunity he gets. Someone like him just needs the chance, and he can take care of the rest.”
Robinson had 10 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals in his team’s loss to the Celtics on Wednesday. After the game, he went back out to the court to find an entire section of fans waiting for him. They had come from his hometown and his high school and his prep school and his first college, and they were smiling as they hugged him or shook his hand or snapped pictures of him from afar.
On Thursday, Elisabeth Robinson was still beaming as she recounted the big night in Boston. She said her cellphone had been pinging with text messages all day.
“Pure joy,” she said. “It’s pure joy and gratitude. Duncan’s never been No. 1 or anything. He’s just worked for it. He’s been doubted and he’s overcome it with hard work and belief.”