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Home Technology At Michigan, Duncan Robinson Finds a New Role and a Bigger Stage

At Michigan, Duncan Robinson Finds a New Role and a Bigger Stage

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — East Quad at the University of Michigan is a large, newly renovated dormitory with classrooms, a theater, a coffee shop and about 850 students — equal to about 40 percent of the entire enrollment of Williams College in Massachusetts.

Duncan Robinson sat in his new East Quad room in August 2014 with his mother, Elisabeth, and his sister, Marta. They had arrived early, a week ahead of the general student population and the basketball team, which was still touring Italy.

After a year at cozy Williams, the empty dorm felt cavernous and overwhelming to the Robinson family. Slowly, a pinch of doubt about the bold move that Duncan was attempting bubbled to the surface.

“It did not have a college feel to it,” Marta Robinson said of the deserted residence hall. “It was lonely and stark. We were moving him in, and he was very, very quiet. I remember he said, ‘I’m just worried that I made the wrong decision.’”

That decision was to leave the cocoon of Williams, a top liberal-arts college tucked away in the Berkshires, and join Michigan, one of the most prominent athletic universities in the world, with a student body more than 20 times larger than that of Williams.

Robinson, a lithe shooting guard with a quick release, spent one year at Williams, an N.C.A.A. Division III school, tangling with small private colleges like Colby, Bowdoin and Amherst in front of audiences that sometimes measured fewer than 300 people, and he was not even his team’s top scorer. At Division I Michigan, he would start against national powerhouses like Michigan State and Indiana, watched by 17,000 or 18,000 rowdy fans and large national television audiences.

Basketball-wise, it was the rough equivalent of jumping straight from the sixth-grade Christmas pageant to Broadway.

“It was definitely a leap of faith,” Robinson said after a recent game at Michigan’s Crisler Arena. “But once the door was open and the opportunity presented itself, I knew I would never be able to forgive myself if I turned it down. I was betting on myself. If I was going to go down, I was going down swinging.”

But instead of going down swinging, he has gone up shooting.

College basketball players’ transferring between universities was once rare, but now hundreds of players move among Division I programs each year, and even some from Division II up to Division I.

Still, according to a survey compiled each year by Jeff Goodman and Jeff Borzello of ESPN, out of about 700 transfers in each of the past two years, only two players went from Division III schools to Division I.

“I’ve never seen anyone do what he has done,” Goodman said. “He didn’t just jump to any Division I school. He did it at Michigan, and the incredible thing is he is making an impact there.”

After sitting out a year by rule and only practicing, Robinson started 27 of Michigan’s 36 games last season and averaged 11.2 points, showing he could successfully navigate the jump from the quaint New England Small College Athletic Conference to the pressurized Big Ten.

His 95 3-pointers last season were the third most in the Big Ten, and he shot 45.0 percent from beyond the 3-point line, the second-highest rate in the conference.

Robinson, a senior, has posted slightly lower numbers this year. He is mostly coming off the bench now, and he is averaging 9.3 points per game, while his 3-point rate dipped to 39 percent. But Michigan still has the bulk of its season remaining, having just begun conference play.

Robinson still has room for improvement, but whatever doubt he shared with his mother and sister on his first day on campus is long gone.

Not that there was ever any doubt that he could shoot. Mike Crotty, Robinson’s Amateur Athletic Union coach with the Middlesex Magic, who was the director of player development for the Boston Celtics when they won the N.B.A. championship in 2008, thinks Robinson can do it at the professional level, too.

“He is as good a shooter as there is in the world,” Crotty said. “I was with the Celtics when Ray Allen was there, and I know what the best shooter of all time looks like. Duncan can shoot at that level.”

If that happens, it is believed Robinson will be the first player from Williams College to play in the league. There were two players from William & Mary in the N.B.A., and two from William Paterson University. But according to the Basketball Reference website, no one from Williams College has made it.

A late bloomer, Robinson was not highly recruited out of high school, and most New England colleges did not show much interest. He spent a postgraduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious prep school in New Hampshire, and in October that year, he committed to Williams to play for Coach Mike Maker.

Going to a small college was not an issue. Robinson’s sixth-grade class on the island of New Castle in New Hampshire had four students in it — not even enough to fill a basketball lineup.

At Williams, Robinson began to blossom, averaging 17.1 points per game in his freshman season as he helped the Ephs reach the N.C.A.A. Division III title game in Salem, Va.

It was the only time the team flew to a game that year.

“It was a big deal,” Robinson said. “We were very excited about that. Bus rides were 10, 12 hours. We actually bused to Virginia earlier that year.”

Now, he jets to and fro with Michigan. The Wolverines already flew to New York and Los Angeles this year and played on ESPN six times before their winter break. At Williams, the Robinson family had to stream the live conference feed when they could not get to a game.

“I would get texts from people I hadn’t heard from since high school,” Marta Robinson said. “And they would be like, ‘Does your brother play for Michigan?’”

As appealing as the big spotlight is, Robinson loved Williams, and so did his tightknit family, who never imagined that he would leave. But when Maker decided to take a coaching job at Marist College in June 2014, Robinson began to wonder.

The day that news broke, Robinson and his sister were driving south on the Pacific Coast Highway toward the Golden Gate Bridge after visiting their cousins.

“My sister was crying and asking what I was going to do,” Robinson recalled. “I said: ‘Marta, this could be a total positive. Who knows? I could end up at a place like Michigan.’ I didn’t know anything. I was just throwing it out there.”

But in his mind, Robinson had already formulated a small list of top universities he would consider leaving Williams for, including Michigan, Stanford, Davidson, Duke and Harvard.

Michigan, with its high academic and athletic standards, was a good fit, and Robinson had a connection. Maker was an assistant to Wolverines Coach John Beilein when they were at West Virginia from 2005 to 2007. Maker asked his former boss to screen tape of Robinson and perhaps consider him as a walk-on.

“I looked at some video of him and I said, ‘This isn’t any walk-on,’” Beilein said. “So we offered him a scholarship.”

Two seasons later, Robinson is out of East Quad, living in an Ann Arbor apartment with teammates and hoping to get Michigan back to the Final Four of the N.C.A.A. tournament — Division I, that is.

Then, perhaps, another jump all the way to the N.B.A.

“There’s areas I need to develop and grow,” he said. “But that’s a dream and an aspiration that I’m going to keep working towards.”

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