Duncan Robinson’s Quiet Defensive Improvement

The story of the NBA’s prototypical sharpshooter has been as predictable as the plot of a Hallmark Movie. The sniper of 3 point shots takes the league by storm, teams start game planning, and the player eventually gets figured out to a point, thus making them less valuable. The shooter is more than likely a bad defender and leads to the downfall of their minutes and effectiveness. It’s up to Duncan Robinson and the Miami Heat to figure out how to rewrite the script and keep their once-in-a-lifetime shooter on the floor as much as possible. So far this season, they’re off to a promising start.


Duncan Robinson is not your ordinary NBA sharpshooter. He might be the best non-Steph Curry shooter lacing them up today. He bends and shifts defenses to his whim, creating chaos in his path. One second the defender will think he’s bottled up, only to be foiled by an improvised dribble handoff with his right-hand man Bam Adebayo. He’s relentless in his pursuit of getting a shot off, and if the defense relaxes, even for a second, it’s already too late. Miami relies so much on this to make its offense the well-oiled machine that it can be at its peak. It’s why improving his defense and keeping him on the court as much as possible is vital for the team to reach another level.


Last season Miami found itself choosing between keeping him on the court late in games or bringing in someone else for defensive purposes. Duncan would get hunted by the opposing team, knowing they could take advantage and play him off the court. They wanted to get rid of the headache he was causing on the other end by any means necessary. The aspirin they were looking for turned out to be a constant barrage of pick and rolls Robinson’s way. However, this season there hasn’t been as much noise concerning the sniper’s availability late in games. Duncan seems to be getting the grasp of all the small things on defense, and he’s being rewarded with the trust late in games that alluded him last year. 


Watching him on the court and you can see a stark difference in how he’s paying attention to detail and not allowing mistakes to compound themselves. One of his most significant shortcomings last year was how prone he was to fouling so much. Those were the mistakes he kept allowing to build until Coach Spoelstra was forced to show him to the bench. He’s become careful, but not to a point where he’s actively disappearing on defensive possessions. So far this year, he’s averaging 1.8 fouls through the first 15 games, as opposed to last year when he averaged 2.6 per game. That may not seem like much on the surface, but the difference during a game is palpable when you don’t have to sit after picking up two quick fouls. He has made sure to avoid getting his golden arm caught in the cookie jar. He’s not picking up cheap fouls as he was so prone to doing last year. He’s now trusting that his size will be enough to bother the opposing players. Diving deeper into the numbers, Duncan has only had two games of 3 or more fouls.


Compare that to the six such instances he had through his first 15 games last season. The three penalty mark is where things get sketchy for players, and not only do their minutes get in trouble, but their defense suffers, as well. The player becomes more tentative to be physical, and an edge is lost. Duncan has managed to avoid these pitfalls so far, and Miami has gotten to enjoy his elite offensive presence late in games because of it. While it hasn’t resulted in much success, there’s no denying it won’t hurt once the team is back to somewhat full strength. It’s something that can’t be taken lightly, considering just how much good havoc he creates. That kind of chaos could create a much-needed bucket for the team as the game begins to bog down.


Duncan’s continued to grow even as a team defender.  He’s become visibly more vocal, calling out teammates when they’re not where they’re supposed to be. He was essentially a rookie last year, but now he knows he’s a veteran leader on the team. The reluctance he carried has left his shoulder and, in turn, boosted his presence on defense. Learning from mistakes is a growing pain, and now he’s enjoying teaching those same lessons to the younger and new guys. He’s hedging even harder on screen and rolls, avoiding an easy switch that the defense wants to bait the team into eventually. He’s digging on post-ups and recovering to shooters under control. It’s such a vast difference to the wild closeouts last season that he’d resort to as he helped too far off on the dig. 


The lineup numbers bear these improvements out as well. Duncan is part of 5 of the top 10 best defensive rating two-man lineups with at least 100 minutes played. What’s most surprising is how the second guy next to Duncan in these duos doesn’t include Bam Adebayo, the team’s defensive anchor. Expanding this even further, he’s also a part of 3 of the top 5 three-man defensive lineups with at least 50 minutes played, including being in the top-ranked one featuring Avery Bradley and Goran Dragic that boasts an 87.2 rating. On/off-wise, the team has its second best defensive rating of 108.8 (among those with at least 200 minutes played) with him out there. And even if single-player defensive stats aren’t your thing, it’s still worth mentioning. And it’s very evident when watching the games as well. I haven’t found myself uttering “ugh Duncan” under my breath so much this year. It’s a good sign that the amount of yelling being directed his way on Twitter has mostly been for wanting him to shoot more. It’s been apparent that the team hasn’t been bleeding points because of him specifically. The mistakes have cleaned up to where it’s nearly negligible.


Miami will continue working with Duncan on his defense, and he’ll continue to get better from game to game. He’s always had the work ethic to get better on that end. After all, we’re talking about a kid who made it to the NBA from a D-III college. The effort is half the battle on defense, and with his unquenched thirst for improvement, he’s well on his way.


You can tell he wants to be out there late in games with his teammates. He doesn’t want to be just another “shooter” like JJ Redick or Wayne Ellington that gets played off the floor as soon as playoff teams start hunting them out. Those guys didn’t have a near 6’9 foot frame and 7’1 wingspan to help them out. Those are the same qualities that made him such a unique shooter, to begin with. He’ll find a way to incorporate that unwavering motor, footwork, and impeccable balance he has on offense into his defense. Look at Jim Carrey, he was a great comedic actor in his prime, but he didn’t let that stop him from showing off his dramatic chops from time to time. Duncan needs to find his ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or ‘The Truman Show’ to go along with his ‘Ace Ventura’, aka his 3 point stroke. Sure, we know how legendarily amazing you are at one aspect, but immense acclaim will come your way when you can be versatile. He doesn’t need to be Daniel Day-Lewis or Leonardo DiCaprio, but he needs to make sure he isn’t Rob Schneider, pigeonholed and typecast the rest of his career.


I don’t expect Duncan to become Robert Covington or Josh Richardson, and neither should anyone else. He’ll make sure not to be just another sharpshooter but a once-in-a-lifetime offensive weapon with more than capable defense. Duncan will show you he can do ‘Man on the Moon’ but won’t let you forget what got him to where he is. He’s changing the narrative one shot and rotation at a time.


Marco Romo (@Marco_Romo) is a new regular contributor to Five Reasons Sports Network and the Five Reasons Sports YouTube Channel.

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