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Duncan Robinson & The Art Of Active Participation

One of the coolest parts of covering basketball is seeing players evolve. There is almost nothing that beats it from a process perspective. The evolutions a player goes through, to change, morph, adapt, and improve into something else that’s required for their new environment or situation is an incredible parallel for life. Basketball players, much like the common folk in the world go through their own evolutions, they too can change. And when they eventually reach their next phase — the process of evolving begins again, until there comes a time when they’ve reached their final form as a basketball player.

That transition, the ‘process’ itself can be tedious. It can get ugly. At times it never happens. In fact, most of the time, you don’t know when the results of your hard work as a player will show up in a game. That in-between stage from one evolution of Pokemon and the next can get really perplexing. There needs to be a level of confidence and resilience from the player to believe that they can reach that next level in their game and that they do, in fact, have more to contribute.

Duncan Robinson must know all about that. He’s spent the last 2 seasons in Miami struggling to regain his footing in the Heat’s rotation, playing in just 42 games through the 2022-2023 regular season and starting in 1.

Through the 2023 postseason, however, Robinson has played in every single one of Miami’s playoff games. He’s found himself back in the Heat lineup and has played a pivotal role in helping this Miami team pull off this miraculous run. He’s swung multiple games in their favor.

And last night, he did the same in Denver to tie the NBA Finals at 1 apiece. With the Heat down by 8 to start the 4th quarter, Robinson rattled off 10 straight points to give Miami the lead.

How? Because of his evolution throughout this postseason.

Robinson’s rejuvenation is in part because of this concept I like to call ‘active participation’. I wrote about it when I talked about Dallas Mavericks wing Josh Green turning a corner in his career and how his own active participation on the court has helped turn him into an important weapon for the Mavs offense.

Throughout these playoffs, Robinson has begun putting the ball on the floor more, making reads with a live dribble and even attacking the basket at times. His willingness to put the ball on the floor has made him an active part of Miami’s offense. Gone are the days when a player can just be a specialist, knocking down 3-point shots and standing in the corner, or coming off of a pindown. Because when defenses take that away — what do you have left to offer?

That’s part of why Robinson fell out of the rotation in Miami post-signing a 5-year, $90 million deal in the summer of 2021.

The 3-point marksman was becoming a bit of a mark on defense, getting hunted when on the floor and his one-dimensional nature on offense became easier to guard because you knew what he was going to do every time he touched the ball – shoot.

And when the shot isn’t dropping, which increasingly became the case over the last 2 seasons in Miami, it becomes harder and harder to rationalize playing a guy like Robinson.

But he’s forced the issue with his on-ball development.

Make no mistake, 3-point shooting is still a massive part of Robinson’s appeal as a player. He’s knocking down 44% of his treys in the post-season compared to 33% in the regular season. The confidence in his shot has returned and it’s allowed him to climb back into the rotation.

Just as an example, he started off the 10-point run in the 4th quarter with a very patent Robinson step in three.

But this next possession is a new wrinkle Robinson has added. He now uses the added attention he gets as a shooter to attack closeouts and get to the basket. Robinson is getting to the rim for 17% of his shots in the post-season, up from 6% in the regular season. Yet he’s still finishing nearly 80% of his layups, according to Cleaning The Glass. This is a MASSIVE area of growth for him.

Robinson has made most of his bread as a DHO recipient, pressuring defenses as a shooter who can pull the trigger off the catch. But he’s improved as a pull-up threat as well, knocking down 50% (yes 50%) of his pull-ups this post-season.

So if defenses switch these DHO actions, like in this play here, D-Rob can draw out the big and pull up on him.

And Robinson is keeping defenses honest, because while Denver is mostly playing him for the shot, and are rather comfortable letting him get downhill — he’s making them pay for that because of his increased comfort as a ballhandler.

And now this opens things up for his teammates. The Heat run the same play again right after and this time, Robinson’s rolling gravity (shocking, I know) leads to a miscommunicated switch between the two Nuggets defenders and a wide-open three for Vincent.

And when you look back, Robinson has been doing this all postseason. His willingness to move without the ball, and take different angles when curling around a screen whether to flare out or to curl inside — has been largely advantageous for the 29-year-old sharpshooter.

Similar action here in the Celtics series gets him a wide-open layup.

The 2-man, dribble-hand-off game between Adebayo and Robinson has added a new layer because of this. Now, not only do they have to guard Robinson for the shot and worry about Bam faking the DHO and getting downhill, but now Adebayo can find a cutting Robinson for an easy layup.

And Robinson has improved as a ballhandler enough to be passable, if not potent in these situations.

The next step would be for Robinson to start to create open looks for his teammates by putting the ball on the floor. That next evolution would be him putting the ball on the floor and comfortably making reads when the defense rotates over. As he did on this possession in Game 1 of the Finals.

But at the very least this process, this evolution has begun. Robinson has morphed into a completely different version of himself.

And it’s because of the process of active participation, which I define as actively engaging in the action that your team is running and not just being a product of it.

Robinson had become so used to being the spot-up shooter, the DHO shooter, that for a while there, he was just an avatar fulfilling a role in the organism that is the Heat offense. But by actively participating, by thinking, reading, reacting, and acting on how the defense is guarding any given possession, Robinson has unlocked a new level of his game.

He’s evolved.

Many role players can get into this funk. A funk that makes them passive, and merely cogs for an overall scheme rather than active forces that can bend and manipulate a defense.

As the game evolves, role players ‘roles’ will evolve too and we’re seeing that firsthand with Robinson’s evolution over the last 5 seasons with Miami and particularly in these playoffs.

In fact, this is something that Miami does an incredible job of in general, instilling a belief in their players that they too can be active participants in their own evolution. Through different stages of this playoff run, we’ve seen guys like Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and now Robinson all take the game into their own hands and become their own force — not just a player playing their role.

Just another notch on the belt for Heat Culture, I guess. But for Robinson, who was labeled an albatross of a contract over the last 2 seasons — it must be a great feeling getting back to where he was as a shooter, while also adding a small but rather impactful layer to his game.