Even after his meteoric rise from unheralded three-star to coveted five-star, Glenn Robinson III was never the centerpiece. In John Beilein's 2012 recruiting class, Mitch McGary commanded the most attention. In Michigan's offense over the following two seasons, Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas were the focal points. Playing a game in which the object is to put the ball through the hoop, Robinson was notable for how rarely—and briefly—he touched the rock.
He waited on the periphery, and when the opportunity arose, he struck with such suddenness and forcefulness that even if you forgot he was on the court, you were sure to leave the game talking about whatever he just did. One moment, he was a 30% three-point shooter standing harmlessly in the corner. The next, some unsuspecting defender was attempting to discard a 6'6", 220-pound hat with ill intentions.
Robinson's ability to make these lightning strikes look effortless belied the skill required to execute them. Correctly timing a cut requires not only reading the defense, but also your teammates—a foray to the rim is worthless if the cutter and passer aren't on the same page, and a poorly timed one can ruin the offense's spacing.
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GRIII's knack for knifing along the baseline at just the right moment proved the ideal complement for the on-ball creation of the stars in Michigan's backcourt, and nobody knew this better than the man who recognized his talent back in the under-the-radar three-star days:
Later, Beilein added, “It’s just, getting him comfortable in some action that he’s really comfortable with. One of those things is flying around and being a slasher and a burner. That’s what he’s really good at -- really good at. I think he’s the best off-the-ball cutter anywhere around. So we’re trying to do a lot of that with him.”
Denzel Valentine would probably agree. Ditto Austin Hollins, Okaro White, and the entire state of Pennsylvania. If you set foot in the Crisler Center over the last two years, odds are good that the moment you let your mind drift, a thunderclap at the rim snapped you back to attention, much like the guy who just unwittingly ended up on Sportscenter.
Robinson's offensive arsenal wasn't limited to cutting and dunking, of course. Michigan boasted a lethal transition offense in large part because he traversed the court in a flash, and even if a defender held on for dear life there was no stopping him. Perhaps because so many of his shots were uncontested, Robinson never got the credit he deserved for finishing at the rim through contact, whether on the break or in the halfcourt.
And if he ever got into the open court? Well, things got exquisite.
While his classmate and teammate, Nik Stauskas, turned Not Just A Shooter™ into a meme, Robinson could never shake a similar, more limited reputation as Just A Dunker. For a player who came to Michigan with raw athleticism and an otherwise narrow offensive skill set, this wasn't fair. From the same article linked above comes another quote from Beilein, who was looking for a way to get GRIII more involved in the offense early this season:
“Glenn has been a residual player since the day he’s walked in here,” Beilein said. “It’s not a thing that all the sudden he’s going to become this immediate ballscreen player that is just -- the Tim Hardaway jumpshot (inaudible) -- he’s just not there yet and he’s working at it and he won’t stop.”
Robinson worked his tail off to improve that shot, just as he did on those corner threes—much to the approval of Charles Woodson—as well as his defense, strength, and already ridiculous athleticism. By the end of his short collegiate career, the weight room became GRIII's House.
For a player who made regular appearances on the Top Ten Plays, however, Robinson's most important contributions often went overlooked. Ask the average Michigan fan to name his greatest play and you're likely to hear about a spectacular dunk (namely the GR360) or the game-winner against Purdue; the latter, admittedly, deserves serious consideration.
If I had to encapsulate Robinson's Michigan career, however, I'd go back to the 2013 Elite Eight against Kansas. Everybody remembers The Shot, as well they should. Forgotten are two plays that made Trey Burke's shining moment possible.
The first came with Michigan down ten points on defense with 2:30 to play, a near-hopeless situation against any team, let alone a top-seeded defensive juggernaut. Tim Hardaway Jr. had just missed two shots on the other end, sandwiched around a Robinson offensive rebound that went for naught. Then Hardaway and Trey Burke trapped Kansas's Elijah Johnson on the wing, and when Johnson lobbed a pass to seven-footer Jeff Withey at the top of the key, Robinson exploded off the court to tip the ball, chase it down, and dunk it home with a statement: We ain't dead yet.
The second occurred just two possessions before Burke's bomb, when a Hardaway attempt to cut the lead to two missed the mark and led to a furious scramble for the rebound. What went into the box score as an offensive rebound and made layup doesn't exactly do the play justice:
Robinson picked up the ball and, by virtue of his position, was instantly trapped on the baseline by Withey, the fifth-best shot blocker in the entire country that season. Showing a cool beyond his year, Robinson turned, planted, and contorted his body just enough to shield Withey and flip in an improbable reverse layup.
After the two teams traded two-point possessions, Burke pulled up from El Paso. Robinson stood in the corner, just doing his job. Any memory of his critical stretch run, at least for the time being, disappeared into the ether as ball met twine.
Like any player, especially such a youthful one, Robinson had flaws in his game. Those flaws were only magnified when seen through the scope of expectations, especially when contrasted with the finely tuned craftsmanship of Burke and, the next year, Stauskas.
While the critics always pointed out what his game lacked, however, Robinson's integral contributions to a national runner-up as a freshman and the most efficient offense in KenPom history as a sophomore were either overlooked or brushed off as the product of a gifted athlete just using his God-given ability.
Next season, when Michigan is looking for someone to work around the edges, perhaps we'll appreciate more about GRIII than the skills he brought with him to Ann Arbor, because when he left, he took with him a whole lot more.