From the Bench to the NBA: Duncan Robinson ‘12 Reflects on His Path to Success

From the Bench to the NBA: Duncan Robinson ‘12 Reflects on His Path to Success

At the start of the interview, Duncan Robinson ‘12 apologizes for not responding sooner. This encapsulates the Miami Heat forward perfectly: he’s a really good guy with a heart of gold. With his busy training schedule for the Miami Heat in full swing, Robinson still manages to make time to discuss his time at Govs and his NBA career.

The down-to-earth (even at 6’7”!), earnest, modest, and hard-working star is heralded as an elite player with good reason. This past fall, the Miami Heat advanced to the NBA finals with Robinson scoring an impressive 26 points in Game 5 against the LA Lakers.

The game was a memorable one for Robinson. “To play against the Lakers in a year of so many firsts — that felt like a fitting end. Playing against LeBron James, I mean, that was someone I grew up watching. To compete against him was just incredible.”

He describes his time in “the bubble,” (the COVID-19 isolation zone Disney World created by the NBA to protect the players during the last games of the season and the playoffs) as a unique experience. In the 98 days he and his teammates were there, he loved the college-like atmosphere. “In college, we all lived, ate, studied, and practiced together. In the NBA, it’s not like that. Lots of players go home to their families at the end of the day. What I Ioved about the bubble is that we were all there together, which cultivated that college feeling again. It was a great opportunity for all of us to reconnect.”

Robinson has truly enjoyed getting to know his teammates and is grateful to them for their support. “Seeing someone like Dwyane Wade mentor an undrafted guy like me — he really took the time to get to know me. Andre Iguodala is someone I consider a close friend, too. He helped me gain perspective on and off the court and I’m just so grateful that we work together.”

So how does a humble kid from New Hampshire end up playing against superstars like LeBron James? His narrative — one of an unlikely rise to the NBA — goes like this: after an uneventful high school basketball career, he played for D3 Williams College, transferred to DI Michigan on a full scholarship, and now plays for the Miami Heat, successfully making it to the playoffs this past fall. You can read about him nearly anywhere: his eye-popping statistics, his history-making move from D3 to DI, his high regard for the sport and his teammates, and his incredible attention to detail, to perfecting his shot.

All of those things are true. Robinson worked hard. He continues to work hard. And he has unquestionable passion for and dedication to the game. He’s an amazing teammate. And his story is unprecedented.

But there’s a missing piece in his narrative. Few stories reference his high school experience, especially his time at Govs, which, he says, made a tremendous impact on his journey. Part of the reason for that, he suspects, is his unremarkable time on the Govs basketball team.

“I sat on the bench a lot. I certainly wasn’t any stud,” he laughs. Robinson wants people to know that his time at Govs deserves a place in his story. “The experiences I had at Govs laid a lot of the groundwork for the decisions that I make today.”

The New Castle, NH native grew up playing many sports — basketball, soccer, lacrosse, tennis — but it wasn’t until high school that he decided he wanted basketball in his life forever.

“When I started at Govs,” he says, “I was 5’6” and 155 pounds. I played JV basketball, soccer, and tennis. I picked Govs because I wanted to be pushed, both academically and athletically.”

During his freshman and sophomore years, Robinson developed a strong bond with his tennis coach, Perry Nelson.

“We’d meet every week because I was his advisor,” says Nelson, “and I got to know him really well because I also coached him and had him as a student.” Nelson says that Robinson was always a thoughtful, kind, hard-working member of the community. “He was very even-keeled,” Nelson says, “and an incredibly supportive teammate. I always knew that whatever he did, he’d be successful.”

Nelson describes Govs basketball during Robinson’s years as “in transition.” He says, “Basketball is one of the storied sports at Govs. Unfortunately, the story for Duncan was one of frustration and disappointment.” By Robinson’s senior year, his relationship with Nelson was solid, and Robinson often confided in him about his challenges with basketball and about other things.

“It always impressed me,” says Nelson, “that he could rise above difficult situations. You’d never know that other things in his life weren’t going smoothly for him — he just dealt with it. He seemed to manage every obstacle with grace and perseverance.”

As Robinson’s fame has grown, Nelson has remained in contact with him. “Whenever he was having a rough time here, or at Williams, or at Michigan, I’d text him and say ‘keep shooting.’ I just texted that to him the other day,” laughs Nelson.

Though Nelson sees it more as a metaphor for life, Robinson’s adherence to the directive has paid off. The phrase has become a comfortable touchstone.

“He’s incredibly humble,” says Nelson. “No one thought that he was this great athlete when he was here and now he’s in the NBA.”

After two years of bench-sitting at Govs, Robinson decided he wanted to up his game — he also started boarding his junior year. “Up until that point, I was a day student,” Robinson explains.

“That summer, I worked really hard on my game and thought that I’d get more time on the floor my junior year.” He didn’t.

“I was devastated about my junior season,” he says. “Devastated.”

The summer before his senior year, Robinson asked his mother — whom he lovingly credits for a lot of his success — if he could stop working his summer job at the local general store so he could focus on basketball. “I said, ‘Mom, I want to play in college.’ And she let me quit my job so I could focus on basketball.”

That summer, Robinson says he “took the game to another level.” He shot hoops for hours at the local gym with friends.

When he returned to campus that fall, he was a foot taller than when he started as a freshman. “I was 6’6” and 170 pounds. Skinny,” he laughs, “but grown up enough in my game to attract some attention from D3 recruiters.”

He spent more hours in the gym at Govs. “I stayed on weekends,” he recalls, “even when most of my classmates would go home. I would just go to the gym and shoot.”

Robinson did not want to let his setbacks in basketball define him. Instead, he used them as a guide. “You know, looking back, it was very important that I was present where I was. In the moment, I never tried to forecast my success. Like a lot of guys my age, of course I dreamt of being in the NBA, but it was never an immediate goal. In high school, I just wanted to get on the floor.”

He did. He got on the floor. He kept shooting. “I didn’t even know how to work out, but I just kept going to the gym, kept practicing,” he says.

Robinson pauses. “For much of my basketball career at Govs, it was a struggle. The competitive side of me felt more deserving of a bigger role. My passion for the game was tested the most then. Nobody thought I’d play in college.”

He did.

When Duncan was at Michigan, he said he felt that it was easy to work hard there because he was making a contribution to the team; he was on the floor a lot. At Govs, he felt like he was being tested in what was ultimately the best way possible. “I constantly felt like I was struggling. At Govs, I had to ask myself, ‘Do you love this or not?’”

That lesson, he says, has served him well. When Robinson graduated in 2012, he knew the answer to that question. Because of the struggles faced, Robinson knows that Govs played a critical role in his journey to success.

“I’m grateful for the time I spent at Govs. I learned so much about being an adult, about making difficult decisions around what I wanted to do and what I believe in. It’s probably one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says.

Govs is grateful, too, Duncan. Keep shooting.