Kornacki: Robinson's Unlikely Journey Continues at Michigan

Dec. 7, 2015

Duncan Robinson
Duncan Robinson

By Steve Kornacki

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Duncan Robinson was 5-foot-6 freshman at Governor's Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. He said the boarding school "was in the middle of nowhere without much to do," and so he found the best distraction he could.

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Robinson walked to the Alumni Gymnasium and shot a basketball, endlessly some days. He said the gym was like something straight out of "Hoosiers," and all that seemed to be missing was "Shooter" calling the "picket fence" play for Jimmy Chitwood.

It was an idyllic setting for a marksman to hone his shooting craft. But back then, Robinson never dreamed he'd someday become the top three-point shooter for Michigan, let alone at Division III Williams College, from which Robinson made an improbable transfer, and on full scholarship no less.

"I'd literally shoot for hours," said Robinson. "I'd shoot and chase my rebound. Alumni Gym was an old, old gym, with dim lighting, and messed up wooden floors. I'd be in there by myself. It was a little sandbox of a gym, real small."

Governor's Academy, located a half-hour drive north of Boston, is the oldest continually operated boarding school in the United States of America, opening before there even was a USA, and was founded at the bequest of Gov. William Drummer in 1763. John Hancock and Samuel Adams signed the school's incorporation charter more than a decade before signing the Declaration of Independence.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth U.S. President, was the school's secretary of the board of trustees. Capt. Edward Preble, commander of the USS Constitution and a hero of the Barbary Wars, attended Governor's Academy.

However, none of them ever played basketball. The sport wasn't invented until 1891, when James Naismith put up those peach baskets 10 feet high and secured them to a gallery railing. Alumni Gym didn't have peach baskets. It had nylon nets, and Robinson loved to hear them snap from the backspin when his feathery shot swished.

"I linked up with a trainer my junior year and he really taught me how to work out," said Robinson. "But before that, I'd just shoot for hours. It was fun, and how I chose to pass my time. What I did was count my makes. I tried to make 1,600 shots a week."

How did he arrive at that number?

"I had two days when I played pickup games outside of basketball season," said Robinson, who played on the school's team and was still coming in off the bench as a junior. "The other five days, I figured to make about 350 shots each day."

He said everything began clicking after Christmas during his junior year, and he told his parents, Jeffrey and Elisabeth, that he believed he had a future in basketball. They encouraged him to become completely dedicated to the game. He was 6-5 as a senior, and his parents agreed that he didn't have to get a summer job before that school year. He could focus completely on basketball.

"I lived in the gym," said Robinson.

He "linked up" with Noah LaRoche, who became his basketball mentor. Robinson played AAU ball for the Middlesex Magic, and he said its coach, Michael Crotty Jr., also had a strong influence on his career. Crotty was a member of the 2003 national champions at Williams College.

"Jay Tilton, my coach at Exeter, and Coach Crotty were the first two who told me I had a chance to play college basketball," said Robinson. "Coach Tilton said, 'I think you can play in the Ivy League,' and I was blown away. I wasn't sure myself until then, but from there I just took off."

He said that his parents' support "has been relentless" and added that "they believed in me through-and-through," even when the future wasn't so promising. His father, who played as a walk-on for one season at the University of Maine, was a 6-0 guard with "a shooter's touch" who can still challenge him in games of H-O-R-S-E. Though, Duncan said his father, now 64, hasn't beaten him in quite a while. Dad is the master of unorthodox shots, and Duncan said he incorporates some of them into his game.

His mother is 5-11, and Duncan said his current 6-8 height can be attributed to her genes. He has an older brother, Eli, and an older sister, Marta, who played water polo at Santa Clara. They also pitched in to develop him.

Robinson Family
Left: Mother Elisabeth, Eli, Duncan, Marta and father Jeffrey // Right: Eli, Duncan, father Jeffrey, Marta and mother Elisabeth

Robinson grew 11 inches while at Governor's and became a good player, too. Still, no college was interested after graduation. So, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire for a post-graduate year.

Phillips Exeter, founded in 1783, has something in common with Governor's Academy. Paul Revere created the original seals for both schools, but is better known for signaling the coming of the British forces with his "one if by land, two if by sea" lantern command.

There was no "three if behind the arc" command, but that gets us back to Robinson.

He scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for Exeter in their Class A championship game win in 2013, and then moved onto Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He helped lead Williams to a second-place finish in the NCAA Division III Tournament under Coach Mike Maker.

Maker was an assistant coach under Wolverine coach John Beilein for two years at West Virginia, and opened the gates to Michigan for Robinson.

"In late June after my freshman year at Williams," Robinson said, "Coach Maker called me up and said he loves me but he is taking a Division I job as an assistant (at Marist College).

"I never told anybody this, but my mom was crying when she found out Coach Maker was leaving. I said, 'Mom, everything's going to work out. I can transfer. Michigan runs the same system as us and I can go out there.' I met with Coach Maker."

Robinson asked Maker if he believed he could play for a top Division I program, and Maker said he had no doubt.

So, Robinson put it to his coach: "Would you mind reaching out to Coach Beilein on my behalf?"

Maker replied, "Absolutely!"

Two weeks later, Beilein called Robinson and told him, "There's a chance we might have a spot for you." Robinson said he "smiled ear to ear" after that conversation, thinking he would be given a shot at walking on at his dream school.

The phone rang five or six days later, and Robinson recalled the conversation.

"Coach Beilein said, 'I watched your film and I love the way you play. I think you would fit in great.' "

Robinson was beside himself, but the best was yet to come.

"Coach Beilein added, 'We're talking scholarship here.' "

Robinson said he was speechless for "10 or 12 seconds" of pinch-me time.

"Coach Beilein said, 'Are you still there?' "

Robinson recovered in time to say, "Yeah, yeah, I'm here. Coach, that sounds great. As soon as we can schedule a visit, I'm there."

He committed on that visit.

Courtesy Williams College Athletics

Robinson said he also was attracted by how Beilien transformed "under-recruited players" like Nik Stauskas, the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2014 and an NBA first-rounder, into special players. Robinson played against Stauskas while both played in the same New England prep school conference. And now some are comparing Robinson to Stauskas, though Robinson shook his head when that was mentioned, adding, "I don't know about that."

He told his story after a recent Michigan practice while sitting in a leather chair in a second-story lounge overlooking the practice courts, and couldn't stop smiling. Why should he?

"It's a crazy, crazy story," said Robinson.

How many chapters are required to tell the rest of his story remains to be seen, but the first chapter of his career here is pure storybook.

Robinson is the second-leading scorer on the Wolverines with 11.5 points in only 22 minutes per game coming off the bench. And he's averaging 16.7 points in the last three games with Texas, North Carolina State and Houston Baptist.

His 25 three-pointers and 42 attempts (.595) lead Michigan, which has a prolific three-point shooter who could be an NBA first-round pick in Caris LeVert (17-for-35, .486).

Robinson says he can tell whether or not the ball is going in the instant he releases it.

"I try to never miss short," said Robinson. "Back of the rim is a good miss. If I miss my first shot and it's back rim, I'm feeling pretty good. I don't use a ton of leg in my shot. I don't elevate a lot, and I'm fortunate enough with my height to use a lot of upper body. That helps with fatigue."

He focuses on finding the ball's seams upon getting a pass, and lining up his fingers vertically over the horizontal seams.

But against Connecticut, in the opener of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, Robinson was 1-for-10 from the field and missed all six treys. And so he recruited his family for help in correcting his shot the next morning on an outdoor court at the resort hotel.

"My biggest thing is reps," said Robinson. "You don't get much time to warm up before those games. And so the morning after that UConn game, I got up in the morning and made 150 shots with my mom and sister, who rebounded for me. You could hear the ocean, too."

Robinson made 7-of-10 treys in the next two tourney games against Charlotte and Texas to begin a four-game hot streak during which Robinson's made17-of-26 (.654) treys.

And in practice, he's already broken Stauskas' team record for most three-pointers in a five-minute span with only one ball and one rebounder to feed you. Robinson's 78 treys with assistant coach Jeff Meyer supervising topped Stauskas' 75.

"I'm having a lot of fun," said Robinson. "Having to sit out last year, I had so much anticipation. It was hard not to put added pressure on myself, and so I just went out and played the game I love and had fun."

That much hasn't changed since he was 14 inches shorter, shooting all by his lonesome in that rickety gym at Governor's Academy. Robinson said he'd dream of hitting the winning shot in a national championship during those fantasy games by himself. And for someone who's made good on so many improbable things already, can you count him out?

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