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Duncan Robinson

Year of Graduation: 
2013
Duncan Robinson

“I am still a long ways away from what I’m chasing, but I feel like I can take the necessary steps to get there."

The Miami Heat’s coaches preach a simple message to their players. It applies to those on the NBA roster and those on the minor-league roster: You can’t skip steps. 

It’s a perfect fit for Duncan Robinson ’13, who plays for the Heat’s developmental G League team in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Robinson has taken more steps than most in a basketball journey already marked by two prep schools, two colleges and two professional teams. 

“I have such an appreciation for the whole process,” says Robinson, 24. “I’m very aware of the fact that things could have been very different had one thing changed here or there. I feel like I put in a lot of work and I deserve to be here, but it’s not lost on me that I very well could have put in the same work and not be where I am.” 

The dream Robinson is chasing is a lengthy NBA career, and his appreciation for this opportunity is apparent to Sioux Falls Skyforce coach Nevada Smith, but Smith sees another product of Robinson’s ongoing odyssey. “He walks around with a chip on his shoulder and he should,” Smith says. “He has had to prove it at every level — and there have been a lot of levels — when people said he couldn’t do it. I think there are still people out there who think that, so it helps that he can lean back on all those experiences.” 

Hoop dreams

Robinson’s basketball voyage began in earnest at Rye Junior High in New Hampshire, where he played with future Exeter teammate and classmate Harry Rafferty — with Robinson’s dad, Jeffrey, serving as the coach. Robinson was the big man on campus, and Rafferty was the hotshot who had just moved to town from Wheeling, West Virginia. Both possessed the competitive fire that would serve them in their prep and college careers, and forge a lasting friendship.

We were barking at each other, firing the ball after possessions, committing hard fouls. You would have thought it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.”
Harry Rafferty '13

“It was my first week at school; we’re out at recess and there’s this basketball court outside,” Rafferty recalls, chuckling. “Usually, you just shoot around. You’ve got 15 minutes. There’s not much time to do much of value at recess, but we started playing this 3-on-3 game and it was as intense as a seventh-grade-recess, 3-on-3 game could be. We were barking at each other, firing the ball after possessions, committing hard fouls. You would have thought it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.”

 Robinson was a 5-foot-7-inch point guard when he began his freshman season at The Governor’s Academy in 2008. By the time he reunited with Rafferty at Exeter for a postgraduate year in 2012, he was close to his current height of 6 feet, 8 inches. He led Exeter to a 28-1 record and the NEPSAC Boys Basketball Championship — the first in program history — scoring 24 points with 10 rebounds in a title game win over Choate Rosemary Hall. 

On the rise

Robinson spent a year at Division III Williams College before transferring to the University of Michigan. In three seasons with the Wolverines, he averaged 9.3 points per game and played in the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, where Michigan lost to Villanova. (Read about Robinson’s receipt of the Big Ten Conference Sixth Man of the Year award.)

Despite a deft shooting touch and an uncommonly high basketball IQ, Robinson was not drafted by an NBA team, so he signed an NBA Summer League contract with the Miami Heat. His performance earned him a two-way contract with the Heat, allowing him to spend up to 45 days in the NBA this season while spending the rest of the year with Sioux Falls. 

The thing with Duncan is he’s been awesome since day one. He embraced the culture in Summer League and that’s why he chose to come here."
Sioux Falls Skyforce coach Nevada Smith

“Everyone uses our league in a different way,” Smith says. “For some, it is very much needed for their development. For some, it is about trying to reincarnate what they were. In Duncan’s case, he’s here to get stronger, to learn the pro game, to figure out how to use his IQ and length against quicker, more athletic guys, so he needs to get a ton of reps. In his case, it’s for a true maturing, development of a lot of different parts of the game. 

“The thing with Duncan is he’s been awesome since day one. He embraced the culture in Summer League and that’s why he chose to come here. He was in Miami all summer with the coaching staff and he understands what we expect from him.” 

A tale of two cities

Robinson has played four games with the Heat this season (drilling his first NBA 3-pointer in a win over the New York Knicks), but he has spent the majority of his time in Sioux Falls, where he is averaging 19.6 points, 3.7 rebounds. 2.7 assists and 35 minutes per game. He had 32 points (10 3-pointers) in a loss to the Agua Caliente Clippers on Dec. 10.

He laughs when comparing the cultural differences between South Beach and Sioux Falls. “Talk about polar opposites,” he says. “Summer League was my first time in Miami when I got down there back in the beginning of August. That lifestyle kind of hits you in the face. There’s the fast cars driving around, everyone is trash talking, and then you get to Sioux Falls and it’s flat, cold, everyone is bundled up and very polite. They’re two entirely different experiences but I can honestly say that I have enjoyed both. 

“One of the things that has made the transition seamless is that despite the miles in between Miami and Sioux Falls, there is a carryover in culture. They really make that a priority. I’m not super experienced in pro basketball, but I get the sense that some NBA teams are not as connected with their G League affiliates. Here, the same things are valued. The same things are taught. The same things are expected on a day-to-day basis and there is always somebody from the Heat here, checking in on us.” 

I definitely try to have an appreciation for the people who have helped me along the way."
Duncan Robinson

Robinson remains in close contact with all the coaches who helped him along the way, including Exeter coach Jay Tilton. He also remains fast friends with his teammates on that memorable 2013 team, including Rafferty and fellow classmates Chris Braley, Jordan Hill, Curtis Arsenault, Keon Burns, Davis Reid and Max Eaton. 

“It’s cool to have that kind of support behind you, and I definitely try to have an appreciation for the people who have helped me along the way, the people with whom I have built relationships, and no matter how short the time I had with them, I tried to be really present,” Robinson says. “My pursuit has been basketball, but classmates of mine have gone on to do incredible stuff; stuff that is far more impressive than putting a ball in a hoop. It’s pretty cool to have had that experience and sat in a classroom with those guys and girls. It has helped me grow as a person. 

“I understand that I am still a long ways away from what I’m chasing, but I feel like I can take the necessary steps to get there. I’m going to see it through as long as possible.”  

— Craig Morgan ’84

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin. Photo courtesy of the NBA.