When you look at the NBA’s 10 highest-volume three-point shooters, nine of them make sense. It’s a mix of high-usage guys (James Harden, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard), young gunners (Trae Young, Devonte’ Graham), veteran point guards (Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry), and years-long marksmen (Buddy Hield, Davis Bertans). Then there’s the Heat’s Duncan Robinson. The second-year player—who appeared in only 15 games last season—has quickly emerged as one of the game’s most lethal outside weapons. After a year as a glorified 14th man, Robinson has become indispensable to fourth-place Miami’s top-10 offense.
Robinson is annihilating opponents with his shooting. He’s made at least two threes in 24 straight games. He’s hit three threes in 16 straight. And over his last four games, he’s made a whopping 23 triples. It‘s not only the volume that’s staggering, it’s the accuracy. Of the 10 players shooting the most threes per game, Robinson is converting at the highest rate, landing 43.7% of his shots from beyond the arc. Defenses know what’s coming (nearly 90% of Robinson’s field goal attempts come from three) and yet they are still helpless in the face of a 25-year-old who spent his first year of collegiate basketball at Williams.
“Opportunity is a huge part of it. I’ve improved and grown a lot as well,” Robinson told SI of the dramatic shift from his rookie season to now. “My biggest improvement, something I really got to practice a lot in the G League, is flying around, flying off screens and handoffs, being aggressive in those settings. And just developing that mentality to always have shots. Part of that is confidence and also understanding what your role is.”
It’s shocking whenever Robinson misses a three. His form is wildly consistent, and his chemistry with Bam Adebayo on handoffs is the game-within-the-game whenever Miami is on offense. Robinson will frequently crisscross Adebayo on the perimeter until the two can create even the tiniest bit of space. If Robinson gets a step on his defender when curling off a handoff, you can guarantee he’ll be launching. And when he’s not directly involved in the action, Robinson happily waits on the wing or in the corner, ready to fire if someone else collapses the defense.
The amount of attention Robinson commands is at times hilarious. Adebayo frequently has open lanes to the rim on fake handoffs because two defenders lunge at Robinson. If Jimmy Butler runs a pick-and-roll on the same side of the floor where Robinson is spotting up, one of the league’s premier scorers has a shocking amount of room as he makes his way to the rim. Sometimes Robinson runs around just to freak out the defense while the actual play develops without him.
“It happens pretty frequently,” Robinson says of his decoy act. “Sometimes it’s Coach Spo, sometimes it’s myself understanding the gravity. That’s the advantage of having somebody who could space the floor. I like to think my impact on the offense isn’t just shooting or making shots, it’s creating advantages for others, freeing up the elbows for our talent to make plays.”
The numbers backup Robinson. The Heat have a 115.4 offensive rating with their sharpshooter on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference. When he sits, that number craters to 109.2. That’s the difference between a top-two offense in the league and one that’s in the bottom half. Even the Heat’s two All-Stars—Butler and Adebayo—need Robinson’s aura to thrive. The Heat have a 11.4 net rating when all three share the floor. It’s a 7.0 net rating when Robinson plays with the bench. But Butler and Adebayo have a minus-3.9 net efficiency when they play without Robinson’s shooting.
Erik Spoelstra places such a high value on what Robinson does for the offense that he’s given him the ultimate green light. In Spoelstra’s eyes, Robinson can’t take a bad shot.
“He’s never said anything to me about, ‘You shouldn’t have taken that.’ Ever,” Robinson says. “Which blows my mind. It just shows how he is as a coach and how encouraging he is.”
Historically, Robinson is the latest in a line of Heat sharpshooters who have played massive roles in the offense. Ray Allen did it for the Big Three. Wayne Ellington, a Spo favorite, did it the last few seasons. Robinson overlapped with Ellington (before he was traded) last year, and credits his mentorship as one of the reasons he grew from someone who could spot up to someone who could shoot whipping around a screen at full speed.
“I learned a lot from Wayne last year,” Robinson says. “He’s the ultimate pro in how he handled himself. A lot of the actions he got really good at, I wasn’t comfortable with at first, and he helped me grow in that area. He gave me the template of what to strive for.”
While Robinson is reaching peak efficiency on the offensive end, his defense is a sticking point. He is constantly targeted by opponents. Even when Robinson hides on a less heralded scorer, opposing offenses will hunt him in switches until he can be attacked one-on-one. Robinson plays under 30 minutes a night, in part because he leads the team in personal fouls per game.
“Having my role, that’s kind of what you have to deal with,” Robinson says of the attention offenses place on him. “It’s part of growing up in this league. It’s been a good challenge for me. I have to be more disciplined and technically sound on the defensive end for sure.”
As good as Robinson is at shooting the ball, he can struggle to stay in front of quicker players on the perimeter. Though Spoelstra has complained that many of his fouls are of the ticky-tack variety, Robinson also has a bad habit of compensating for blow-bys with reach-ins.
The defense is an issue, particularly if the Heat want to be taken seriously in the playoffs. If Adebayo and Butler need Robinson to be at their best, what will happen if Robinson gets played off the floor in a seven-game series? Miami seems well aware of this problem. Pat Riley addressed the team’s overall middling defense by adding Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder at the deadline, two guys who have a better chance than Robinson on the perimeter when motivated. But they offer nowhere near the same level of spacing, and Spo can’t make offense-defense substitutions as if they were hockey line changes.
For now, the Heat are more than willing to make the trade-off of Robinson’s defense for his deadly shooting. When Robinson is on the floor, he makes Miami a better team, and he’s arguably more important to their 35–19 record than anyone not named Jimmy or Bam. Opponents are taking notice too, throwing better defenders at Robinson as the season goes on. No one may have expected him to become one of the best shooters in the league in 2020, but Robinson’s success is no longer a surprise.