The Evolution of Duncan Robinson – From Specialist to a Hooper

Insight3 weeks ago16 min readJohn Jablonka

Duncan Robinson has had one hell of a basketball journey. Starting off in Division 3 for Williams College in 2014 then three years in Michigan — already starting off his career climbing from the bottom. In the NBA, he came in as a 24-year-old undrafted rookie where he joined the Miami Heat on a 2-way contract back in 2018.

For the most part, he spent his rookie season in the G-League where he was hooping. In 33 games, he averaged 21.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists shooting 58.0% from 2pt, 48.3% from 3pt(on 9.8 attempts), and had a 69.4% true shooting. Those are insane numbers on insane efficiency. Yet, that didn’t translate in his rookie season where he only appeared in 15 games to shoot sub 30% from 3pt.

Then came the 2020 season, where he surprised everyone — he had SCOUTS googling his name in the middle of games:

He went ahead and had the second-most efficient high-volume season this league has ever seen. Imagine having a record where the only other person ahead and around you is Stephen Curry. That’s what he did where he shot 44.6% on 8.3 attempts.

Not only did he show up in every game in the regular season, but he suited up in every playoff game where he was key in the entire run too. He also had a huge finals game to push the Los Angeles Lakers to six games with his 26 points with 7-for-13 from deep. Keep in mind that was in his first full season.

Now, that was an extremely high bar to reach again. if you’re in the Curry conversation when it comes to high volume efficiency, it’s likely that’s not that sustainable. But that was also wrong, as he followed that season with the 15th-best season at the time(Curry and Buddy Hield last year were better now). That’s still impressive, but unfortunately, that was kind of the beginning of the shortfall.

He started off slow where he shot 34.6% to end the calendar year in 2021 — though that bounced back in 44 games in 2022. But that didn’t matter. This was the year where he lost his starting spot to Max Strus. That carried on in the playoffs where he went 8-for-9 in the first game against the Atlanta Hawks in 23 minutes, but then barely was in the rotation.

Last season was the worst and him being one of my favourite players, it was rough seeing that. Everything dropped for him. He was no longer a starter. Hell, he was no longer a rotation player, only appearing in 42 games and playing just over 16 minutes. Outside of his poor rookie season, this was probably the worst season in his basketball career.

That changed in the playoffs, though. He wasn’t back back. Still only played just over 18 minutes but he did appear in every game and when he played, you could feel him — scoring in double digits 10 of the 23 games, two 20+ points games, shooting 44.2% on 4.9 3s, and coming up huge again in finals games.

That was the Duncan we knew.

This piece is meant to highlight the immense growth he’s had this season, but I felt like this journey was important because it’s part of that growth too, as you’ll see later.

How Robinson started off his career is still here, but he’s certainly nowhere near the same player as he was four years ago or even last year.

So, let’s see how Robinson has improved and evolved, and how he’s yet again, one of the most important players for the Heat.

You may be looking at his box-score stats with 13.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists whilst shooting 36.3% from 3 with 58.7% TS as nothing special. You may think that this is a worse Robinson than we know or at least the same player. Because there are people that think that — the Hawks announcers made that very clear.

His simple stats won’t show the growth he’s had and how different his game looks. But let’s dig a bit deeper, still very surface level though:

Here’s his percentage of shots as 3s(and the percentage of his makes assisted):

  • 2020: 88.2%(96.3%)
  • 2021: 85.5%(97.2%)
  • 2022: 86.0%(96.1%)
  • 2023: 81.0%(95.2%)
  • 2024: 66.7%(86.2%)

These 2 stats alone are wild. He’s always been known as simply a 3pt specialist reliant on others. That’s honestly doing a disservice to him calling him that.

Out of players that played 100+ minutes, here are some examples of guys with 70%+ 3pt rate:

  • Dean Wade
  • Sam Hauser
  • Quentin Grimes
  • Isaiah Joe
  • Luke Kennard
  • Doug McDermott
  • Malik Beasley
  • Buddy Hield

He’s no longer part of that group just hunting 3s.

Let’s dig even deeper.

Here are his 2pt attempts per 100 possessions( percentage of his makes assisted):

  • 2020: 1.84(83.0%)
  • 2021: 2.31(89.2%)
  • 2022: 2.53(82.7%)
  • 2023: 3.25(92.0%)
  • 2024: 6.05(66.6%)

He’s also made as many 2s this year(24) in 11 games as he did last year(25) in 42 games. That’s insane when you think about it. He already has 16 points that are unassisted 2s — his career high is 20 points in 2022 where he played 79 games and attempted 102 2s.

What’s even more encouraging, is looking at his rim attempts(and his frequency):

  • 2020: 1.21(7.7%)
  • 2021: 1.38(8.6%)
  • 2022: 1.51(8.4%)
  • 2023: 1.08(6.3%)
  • 2024: 3.88(21.0)

So, not only has he expanded his game beyond the 3-point line, but when he does cross it, he’s getting to the rim at a ridiculous rate compared to his previous seasons. It’s this type of growth that doesn’t show up in his regular box score and it’s this growth in particular that has made me a more dangerous weapon.

One main way he’s been able to do that, something that he’s done for years now and has expanded on throughout, is by leveraging his shooting to cut after screens. An elite shooter that is also an active screener who has a good feel when it comes to cutting is elite.

This has been the most common way where it’s either Bam Adebayo in Delay actions, or in post-split actions with Robinson screening and cutting. This is something he’s been great at for years now. Always having a great feel, being active as a screener, and knowing when to hold the screen, and when to let go.

There’s also been a few cuts in transition. That feels kind of new, where instead of going for 3s, he goes to cut instead.

But it’s his off-ball movement that’s been most impressive and something that stood out more:

His cuts in Delay actions and off post-splits have been part of his game, what feels new is him being way more active as a cutter whilst other actions are going on. That’s one of the things that has helped him be so much more dangerous. He adds another weapon off-ball instead of being a spacer.

Take that first play, where instead of standing still, he immediately goes to cut and curls to the rim for a shot. That not only helps him get to the rim, but it helps everyone else by giving them that option in the first place.

Look at that second clip with his non-stop movement! All of that running, not standing still in the corner gives the Heat more options. When watching the Heat’s offense now with him, this ability to give them an either 3 or catching on the move makes the offense seamless. It’s less kicking it out to him where it may stall the offense or force him to flow into another DHO.

The other he’s been able to do that is by being a 100x more confident in beating closeouts. I went through his old 2pt attempts in previous seasons:

A lot of them were as if he wasn’t as decisive. On some, he hesitated when trying to attack. On a lot of them, he tried to hunt 3s first. Another big difference was when he actually attacked. A lot of the time, he was getting away from the rim or settling for jumpers.

Contrast that to here:

The big difference is the confidence and the speed he attacks some of those closeouts. Before, it always felt as if this was his option in case of emergency or simply a counter if his 3pt wasn’t there. Now, it more feels like an option that he feels confident to go to. It honestly feels as if he isn’t even thinking about going for a 3 because he knows that’s what the defense think he’s going to do in the first place.

One more thing that stood out is how easy he makes it seem to get to the rim. That has looked better with his longer strides, giving a little fake, protecting the ball better, and making his way right to the rim instead of away from it.

Fortunately, this doesn’t stop here. This is all him finishing, which is great, but he’s shown he’s capable of more.

Whether it’s offcuts or beating closeouts, he’s shown a lot that he can make the right read to whoever is open. Being an elite passer is nothing new for him, but he’s having way more opportunities:

So, at this point, Robinson is not only able to keep the possession alive by being able to beat closeouts or cutting, but he provides rim pressure, where the defense has to help and make play for others.

I don’t think you could’ve asked anything else from him. This is exactly what elite role players should do. Capitalize on advantages for them in multiple ways themselves, and able to continue an advantage by forcing the defense to react to then make a play for others.

All of this is a big reason for this:

These are his driving stats since 2020. In the first four seasons, there’s not much change, only marginal increases.

This year is where the leap came. He’s averaging over 5 drives! It gets better. In the last three games, that went up to:

  • Drives: 6.0
  • FGA: 3.3
  • FG%: 50%
  • Pass: 2.3
  • Assists: 0.7
  • Points: 4.0

He’s already made improvements and is getting better each game. Outside of the number of drives itself, it’s impressive to see the shots and the passes be fairly equal. He’s capable of getting to the rim himself and making kickouts for others. When looking at the past seasons, it’s wild to see these kinds of consistent jumps across the board.

This would all be amazing for any player if that was their improvement. Fortunately, Robinson hasn’t stopped here. He’s even developed on-ball creation skills that make him even more dangerous. It’s all great to be able to take advantage of advantages, but it’s another to be able to be the one creating it, even if it’s in limited usage.

This is something I never thought I’d write, but here’s a compilation of Robinson’s PnR game — I know! Who would’ve thought?

Robinson has been running a lot more PnR than ever and he’s been great.

What’s great to see is in all of those PnRs, he’s getting to the rim. Like I’ll rephrase. Duncan, freaking, Robinson is providing constant rim pressure off a PnR.

He’s beating guys off the dribble, he’s driving middle, driving baseline, he’s driving through traffic, and finishing! His PnR game has impressed me a lot with his ability to keep dribble, force the defender to go over, re-use the screen, hesitate, throw guys off balance, and get to the rim.

When you look at his PnR stats, it gets even wilder this season:

  • 2.1 possessions /game
  • 16.8% frequency
  • 1.09 PPP(85th %ile)
  • 2.3pts on 2.0 FGA
  • 45.0% FG
  • 57.5% eFG

This is what he’s doing as the ball-handler.

When you compare that volume to his previous years, this isn’t the same player. His possessions(frequency):

  • 2020: 0.2(2.2%)
  • 2021: 0.8(6.7%)
  • 2022: 0.8(7.5%)
  • 2023: 0.5(6.9%)
  • 2024: 2.1(16.8%)

But these are just his stats when he shoots and as we know, he’s more than that.

Yes. This is Robinson making plays off a PnR that includes lobs, drives to the rim to kick out, and skip passes.

I want to highlight the last two clips because they are special!

That was Robinson being patient in the PnR, taking advantage of a 2v1, attacking the big in the paint, and getting him in the air to make a WHAT! pass that wraps around the big to find Josh Richardson. I mean, what!

Then in the last clip, he forced a switch and did the smart thing. He drew him out of the paint and realized Bam Adebayo had a mismatch, which drew extra help from the corner. Once that happened, that was a skip to the corner. Those are high-level reads.

This has been the biggest leap because it’s the thing that you don’t expect shooters to do. Shooters being able to beat closeouts effectively is a thing you want to see them to develop. Shooters running PnRs for themselves to provide rim pressure and make high-level reads for others is unbelievable. This is entirely different.

But we can’t stop here! We can’t talk about Robinson without mentioning his 3s. He’s having a strange shooting season.

He’s shooting 36.3% on 7.3 attempts but when you split up, he’s shooting 27.1% on 4.4 catch-and-shoot and 48.4% on pull-ups.

That’s not how it should be, this should all stabilize with a bigger sample. What’s encouraging is he’s making the typical Robinson shots we know he can make:

He’s back to his usual self coming off DHOs — even a couple of 3s off a PnR! He’s currently averaging 1.15 points per possession on 1.8 handoffs(good for the 86th percentile). He’s also scoring 1.54 on 1.0 off-screen actions(95th). But he’s only shooting 0.86 on 3.3 spot-ups (26th)

When looking at his past seasons:

  • 2023: 0.91(27th)
  • 2022: 1.12(79th)
  • 2021: 1.19(85th)
  • 2020: 1.23(91st)

We could expect to have all of this be a lot better and if it does, man, this going to be elite.

One thing that has stood out with his 3s is his off-ball movement:

It honestly seems like he’s got better at this. He’s constantly moving and constantly finding ways to get cleaner looks. He looks more comfortable doing it too. I don’t know if it will happen, but I have a feeling he could have an even better shooting season overall than any season outside of 2020.

That’s because of the better movement but also more of his 3s are unassisted. He’s creating more for himself. Only 86.2% of his 3s are assisted(down from 95.2% last year and 96.3% he had in 2020). We might be seeing more Robinson creating. That’s again diversifying his game even more.

To conclude, this has been possible because of all the improvements he’s made in every area. I haven’t even talked about the defense — though I’ll add he’s fouling at a career-low level!

But we’re seeing these improvements because of all the extra touches:

He’s been given way more responsibilities than before. Everything is on the rise, particularly his dribbling. It all has worked out so far. He has capitalized on this. A player having an increase in touches and responsibility doesn’t always mean they’ll continue to do what they’ve done.

I need to add his last three-game stats too(stats before the Brooklyn game)!

  • Passes: 36
  • Potential assists: 7
  • Touches: 54
  • Time of poss: 1.9
  • Avg sec: 2.1
  • Avg: 1.14

He’s been involved in the offense a lot more and that has also coincided with the Heat having a much better offense — obviously not everything on him, but he’s been huge.

After the type of season, he had last year, it’s incredible to see him not only make these improvements to every part of his game but to put this into practice and turn himself into a more impactful player. That’s what this is all about. He somehow made himself more impactful than what he did in 2020. The year he had the second-most efficient shooting season ever, he’s been more impactful than that. So, it’s not that we’re seeing 2020 Robinson back. It’s we’re seeing a completely different player that doesn’t rely on shooting to have the most impact.

I know that’s now how the award works. Tyrese Maxey has made a huge leap and he probably will win the award if he continues this. But, man, Robinson needs to be in consideration. He’s right in that conversation for most improved. What’s more interesting is this is just the beginning of the season. He continues to get more reps and more responsibilities. By the time the playoffs come, he might be even better with all those reps.

It wasn’t that long ago when it was said he’s the worst contract in the league or that you need to get rid of him. Now, he’s proven everyone wrong.

It has honestly been a wild journey watching him, but it’s been fun seeing him do everything he’s done now after being written off by almost everyone.