Believe it or not, spacing was thought to be a concern for this new-look Miami HEAT group coming into the season.
That might sound as though we’re talking about the wrong team considering the 18-6 HEAT currently have four players shooting 39 percent or better on about four threes a night on their way to posting the second-best three-point percentage in the league to date. But before they got here, they were there. With rookies and second-year wings who hadn’t proven they could crack the rotation much less make shots at an elite level.
Just about everyone knew what the HEAT had in Jimmy Butler. It was unclear exactly what would be around him.
Duncan Robinson did not have a great rookie season. Well, he did at Sioux Falls, where he made 48 – Forty. Eight. – percent of his threes on 9.8 attempts per game. Once he got to the league and got a chance for a team clawing for a spot in the playoffs, he shot just 10-of-35 from deep (28.6 percent) and struggled on the defensive end. It was a small enough sample size you figured the shots would eventually fall as long as his mechanics didn’t crumble to pieces, but he did not yet look like an NBA regular.
Eight months later, he’s a completely different player.
“He’s turned into a professional, a true professional,” Bam Adebayo said. “Duncan is one of those dudes. He’s really locked into his craft. That’s what I like about Duncan.”
As far as tactical wrinkles go the dribble-handoff doesn’t have a lot of that elusive pizzazz. It’s effectively a pick-and-roll with a higher speed limit, ideal for getting attacking players going downhill. Miami is hardly the first team to realize the benefits of manipulating the defense by combining the ballhandler and the screen-setter into the same player. What has turned them into something of DHO factory over the past few years is how they’ve used the handoff not just to help their drives, but to create threes out of thin air.
No team in the past three years has created more three-point opportunities out of hand-offs, per Second Spectrum tracking data. It started with Wayne Ellington, the graceful tornado pulling up behind Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk, and now the DHO knighthood has been passed down to Robinson, sprinting his way into open looks even when everyone in the building can see it coming.
Just as it’s tough to believe the HEAT had shooting questions once upon a September night, this sort of action didn’t come naturally to Robinson despite how matter-of-fact he made it look on his way to tying the team record for 10 threes against Atlanta Wednesday night.
“He didn’t necessarily know how to come off screens and have that mobility,” Erik Spoelstra said.
“Last year I just wasn’t comfortable with taking those shots,” Robinson said. “The process was taking them, missing them and now I’m starting to get more and more comfortable.”
The first step was getting Robinson to believe. Over and over, Spoelstra and his staff have drilled it into Robinson. You are not just a catch-and-shoot player. Guys who stand still have a limited ceiling, volume-wise, because they’re fully dependent on others creating for them. Even if you aren’t a ballhandler, mobility opens up the laboratory. You move, you create. When Robinson went to Sioux Falls, Spoelstra’s marching order was to hit 10 threes in a game. Robinson wasn’t going to get there standing still.
So, he changed things up.
“For me the biggest adjustment was hunting out those opportunities,” Robinson said. “Being aggressive and shooting shots where you don’t really feel like you’re open but you actually are. It’s pretty simple, but it tends to surprise defenses especially if you can do it in times when you’re bursting out of a corner or in transition. Times when the defense might not be ready or expecting it.”
If it wasn’t natural before, Robinson looks like he’s nearly running on pure, unfiltered instinct. Running in transition? Sprint to a spot, turn, find Adebayo, sprint to the ball. Boom.
Jump ball? Find Adebayo, sprint to the ball. Boom.
Two years ago, Ellington led the league with 72 made threes off dribble-handoffs – double that of the player in second place, Damian Lillard. Wayne hit 23 with James Johnson, 17 with Kelly Olynyk and 22 with Adebayo, then a rookie.
This year? Robinson and Adebayo have hooked up for six threes via handoff, most in the league, with Robinson hitting 15 between all his teammates, also a league-high.
“You have to have elite shooting ability, then you have to work on that specific skill,” Spoelstra said. “Then you have to have a potential to be able to have the proper fundamentals and footwork. Wayne did it in a different way, but he really worked at it. He spent a lot of time really developing that shot, and other shots on the move. Duncan has done the same. It didn’t come quite as naturally to him, but he’s matched Wayne in terms of how many repetitions and hours he’s put in behind the scenes in trying to develop that part of his craft.”
Ellington, now in New York, may not know it, but the example he set in Miami’s system may be, by transitive property, changing a young player’s career for the better.
“I think he’s been watching a little film on Wayne,” Adebayo said. “He’s just taking pages out of Wayne’s book.”
If Ellington is A and Robinson is C, then Elite Handoff Shooter is B.
The benefits of training your shooting mobility go beyond handoffs. As much as he can be without being a ballhandler, Robinson is becoming truly dynamic. Need a full speed catch-and-shoot in transition? Dial him up.
Is the defense sending bodies flying at him to get him off the line? It doesn’t matter if it’s the first quarter…
Or if the leverage has hit its peak…
His feet stay solid. His balance is centered. The release is high and quick. Today, Robinson is shooting 44.9 percent on over 12 three-point attempts per 100 possessions. Numbers matched only by Stephen Curry (twice), Eddie House and Davis Bertans this season. It’s early, but that’s rare air.
“This staff really pushed me this last two years,” Robinson said, also noting the aid of shooting coach Rob Fodor. “I can’t just be a catch-and-shoot in the corner kind of guy. That’s been a lot of deliberate effort into that growth.”
There are always next steps. As much progress as Robinson has made, there are still struggles. If teams overplay the arc, there is improvement to seek as a playmaker, hitting a big man who may be uncovered for a split-second. If teams switch – in the playoffs, teams are going to switch – you can’t just run through the handoff and expect there to be empty space. Great defenses put bodies in the spaces you find most comfortable. Robinson is working on making those advanced reads, seeing the passing lanes, finding when to stop short and pull-up over top of his own teammate. Being comfortable, and expedient, with a reset.
Defense, too, will always be a priority. Being a solid defender against lottery teams is one thing. Being rotation-caliber defender in the postseason is an entirely different beast. Robinson can prove his elite shooting credentials now, but the true test doesn’t begin until April.
That’ll be then. For now, the HEAT have another player who has tapped into the secret sauce in a league that is all about talent. A lot of players have talent, fewer make the most of what talent they have.
Duncan Robinson may be lucky to be tall. His cotton-soft touch may come naturally. The rest is work, and work transforms.