For the first two seasons of his career at Florida, forward Devin Robinson took a one-sided view of basketball.
“I didn’t really embrace the defensive end,” Robinson said. “I thought the game was all about scoring baskets.”
Suffice it to say Florida coach Mike White, who in 2015 replaced the legend -- two-time national championship winner Billy Donovan -- was insistent that Robinson readjust his priorities. White’s pitch to the 6-foot-8, 200-pound Robinson was two-fold.
First, if Robinson committed his jaw-dropping athletic ability -- see last week’s NBA Chicago pre-Draft combine -- and that rangy body of his, to guarding people, it would help the Gators. Florida struggled in that department in Donovan’s final season before he departed for the NBA. Doing so would start Florida's steady climb back to the top of the Southeastern Conference.
White also believed that if Robinson could become a versatile defender capable of guarding multiple positions, it would enhance his prospects to make the NBA.
Robinson eventually came around to White’s way of thinking.
“I took it personally,” Robinson said. “I wanted to become the best defender on our team. I wanted to be that guy, the one who could be counted on to get a stop if we really needed it.”
Even before the 2016-17 season began, White saw signs that his prodding and cajoling had taken hold.
“Devin would yell out, ‘I love defense,’ in the middle of practice,” White said, laughing at the recollection. “Sometimes he was trying to get himself going, I’m sure. Sometimes he was trying to get his teammates going. And sometimes, maybe he was trying to work his coach for more playing time.
“But deep down, he learned to appreciate what that side of the ball did, not only for him, but for our team’s success.”
Of that latter point, there can be no question. White, in just his second season, turned the Gators into a team reminiscent of Donovan’s best squads.
Florida finished second in the SEC to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, got past pesky East Tennessee State in the first round (Robinson had 24 points and seven rebounds in that game) and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight, where the Gators were finally eliminated by a fellow SEC squad, upstart South Carolina.
Florida -- which finished 27-9 -- was a deep team that relied on the strength of its numbers to wear opponents down, but Robinson’s contributions figured prominently. And surprise, surprise, a guy known mostly for his acrobatic dunks and 3-pointers was just as important on defense as he was as a scorer.
“We actually switched a lot of stuff off the ball and switched a lot of ball screens one through four,” White said. “A bunch of games, Devin guarded one through four. He’s not a great lateral mover, but he’s got great instincts. And he really knows how to utilize his length.”
There was an added bonus, too. Robinson drew 17 charges this season, nearly as many as Florida did as a team (20).
“He was a really good weak-side defender in terms of drawing charges,” White said. “Which speaks to his physical toughness. And he was also great at altering and blocking shots.”
There were many times when Robinson volunteered for the toughest defensive assignments, even in practice. He remembers a day in practice when 6-foot-6 Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson, who had to redshirt in 2016-17, was terrorizing his teammates while playing on the scout team.
Hudson had racked up some high-scoring games with Virginia Tech, including 32 points against Wake Forest and 27 against Louisville.
“He was lighting us up,” Robinson said. “I think he was [playing the role of] Malik Monk [Kentucky’s high-scoring freshman guard], and he was scoring like crazy. So finally I said, ‘let me try to get on him.’ ”
During the next three possessions, Robinson guarded Hudson so tight he was forced to pass the ball, missed a shot and charged into Robinson.
“That really ignited the practice,” Robinson said. “It was live that day.”
If defense were the only aspect of his game Robinson improved, he might still be on the radar of NBA scouts. But Robinson also went from a decent jump shooter in high school, to an inconsistent shooter in his first two seasons to, at last, an excellent 3-point marksman.
He shot 34 percent from behind the arc as a sophomore and improved to nearly 40 percent as a junior, the byproduct of slightly better mechanics and thousands of shots in practice.
That improved accuracy made Robinson a tough cover. He was always able to get to the rim and was an aggressive offensive rebounder. By adding the 3-pointer to his arsenal, opposing defenses couldn’t predict what Robinson might do from possession to possession.
In part because of his improved shooting ability, but mostly because of his newfound fondness for defense, Robinson declared for the NBA Draft. He caused a stir at the combine by delivering the third-highest maximum vertical leap (41.5 inches), and his standing reach of 8 feet, 10-inches.
“He’s a really tall wing and a monster athlete off the floor,” White said. “And he’s really learned to play within himself. At his best offensively, he’s a catch-and-shoot guy, an offensive rebounder, a straight-line driver and he can hit a one- or two-bounce pullup.”
And then there’s Robinson’s ability to defend.
“Coach White, he’s really big on player development, taking good shots, and playing with energy,” Robinson said. “He knew defense was our strength and our identity. We weren’t a team that was going to try to just outscore you. We had to play defense.”
One way or another, if Robinson gets his chance to make an NBA roster, he will stand out. He might have single-handedly started the retro short shorts movement all the way back in high school.
“I grew from 6-1 to 6-7 in my junior year,” Robinson said. “I didn’t really buy new shorts, so I just got used to wearing little ones. They were more comfortable, and after a while, I just wanted to be different, because no one else was doing it.”
Robinson has embarked on many an archaeological expedition, watching old film of the days before Michael Jordan helped usher in just-above-the-knee-length shorts.
“Even Jordan wore the short ones back in the day,” said Robinson, who rolled up his waistband to achieve the desired effect in college and did the same at the Combine. “I’d have fit in perfectly in that era.”
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