The Transformation of Justin Robinson

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Justin Robinson #50 of the Duke Blue Devils waves to fans during player introductions during Countdown To Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.

Lance King / Getty Images

Justin Robinson #50 of the Duke Blue Devils waves to fans during player introductions during Countdown To Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.

It was a full-blown locker room assault, a sudden blast of shaving cream, confetti, and water. Poured on his head, mashed on his shoulders, smeared on his back and sprayed in his face, virtually no part of Justin Robinson escaped the glittering blue and white bombardment.

It was as if the Duke Blue Devils had taken a cue from their fans, the Cameron Crazies, and released every ounce of madness on Robinson, a basketball brother promoted from preferred walkon to scholarship player.

The congratulatory onslaught, videotaped and posted on social media, reveals a glimpse of the physical and athletic transformation of Robinson, the youngest son of Spurs’ Hall of Famer David Robinson.

When Justin arrived on campus in 2015 from San Antonio Christian High School, he was built like an upside down exclamation point: 6-foot-7 and 180 pounds dripping wet. Today he packs 205 pounds of muscle on a 6-9 frame. What happened?

A power forward with a deadly 3-point shot, Justin hit the weight room and became an avid lifter. He eliminated junk food, ate four meals a day, loaded up on protein and consumed nutritious snacks. Then his father’s late-blooming genes kicked in, the ones that caused David to sprout six inches in college. Over the past three years, Justin has added two inches. Who knows if he’s finished growing?

“I do think Justin has my body type,” said David, who stands 7-1. “He’s obviously not as tall as me but he has super long legs. He looked like a boy when he left here three years ago. Now he looks like a man. He’s gotten bigger and stronger.”

On a team of five-star recruits and future NBA talent, Justin appeared in only six games last season. He did not sulk or complain. He cheered on the starters and became a selfless and popular teammate.

Behind the scenes, Justin emerged as a quiet leader, remarkably, as a freshman and touched 7-0 senior center Marshall Plumlee, who went on to play one season with the New York Knicks.

At the Duke basketball banquet in 2016, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that Plumlee credited Justin for lifting his spirits after a painful loss to Notre Dame, an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game in which the Blue Devils blew a 16-point second-half lead.

“The entire team was counting on me, and I let them down,” the News & Observer quoted Plumlee as saying. “Feelings-wise, I was probably at my lowest. After the loss, I went back to my room, grabbed enough food to last me a few days so I wouldn’t have to leave, and I turned on the TV. I wanted to disappear.

“And it was at that moment that Justin Robinson – J-Rob swag – walked into my room. And this son of a gun … I shot him the meanest look,” Plumlee said. “Every part of my body language was saying get the hell out of my room. A blind person could have seen that I didn’t want anyone in the room. But this guy ignored it all and came and sat next to me and watched TV for hours.”

The News & Observer added: “He didn’t want me to be alone,” Plumlee said, choking back tears. “He didn’t want me to wallow in my self-pity. He cared enough to not do what I wanted, but to do what I needed.”

It was a story Justin never bothered to tell his parents.

“My wife [Valerie] was at the banquet and told me about it,” David said. “That speaks volumes. Justin is a compassionate kid. A natural born leader. I don’t think he has to stretch too hard to be the guy that locker room needs, the one who is going to keep everybody on the same page and keep everyone focused. He has a great personality that way. It’s hard not to like him.”

Justin did not realize the impact of his gesture until Plumlee broke down disclosing it.

“That kind of surprised me,” Justin said. “I didn’t think of it as a meaningful moment in his life. That was one of my best friends. He was down and he was locked up in his room and I felt bad about it. So I ordered a pizza and made him let me in his room and we watched cartoons. I was trying to cheer up a friend.”

In late August, Plumlee retweeted the video of the messy locker room lovefest and wrote, “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had, well deserved and 100% earned. Congrats @jmoney_05

John Valenzuela, Justin’s coach at San Antonio Christian, understands why the Blue Devils mobbed Justin to celebrate the scholarship.

“He’s the best teammate they’ve got,” Valenzuela said. “That’s a byproduct of everything he’s done behind closed doors and now everybody knows it. His heart has been revealed.”

Like his father who grew from 6-7 to 7-1 at the U.S. Naval Academy, Justin has been a late-blooming revelation. In 7th grade, Justin was a 5-foot-5 shooting guard on his middle school team at San Antonio Christian. Two years later, he stretched out five or six inches and flashed potential off the varsity bench for a high school with approximately 320 students at the time.

“We’re playing Roosevelt, a 6A school, and getting crushed at halftime,” Valenzuela said. “In the second half, Justin had six 3-pointers and sparked a big comeback. We beat Roosevelt and Roosevelt was much more athletic. Wow, that was impressive. We might have something here. At the time Justin probably weighed a buck 25 and was probably 5-11.”

As Justin’s body and game grew, so did his interest in Duke. He attended Blue Devil basketball camps in Durham, N.C. and met Mike Krzyzewski, the man who coached his father on the 1992 Olympic gold medal Dream Team.

An outstanding student, Justin attracted basketball interest from Columbia, Rice and Wheaton College, an NCAA Division III school, but none from Duke. He applied anyway. Then he got a call from Krzyzewski who offered a preferred walk-on spot. Justin celebrated. Before he graduated, Coach K called again. He had an available scholarship. Would Justin like it?

That first season was a shock. Of the six freshmen in the gym, four were five-stars recruits, three were McDonald’s All-Americans, one was a three-star recruit. The only unranked player in a freshman class considered the nation’s best was Justin.

As a redshirt that first season, Justin had to guard fellow freshman Brandon Ingram in practice every day. “You can play the best D of your life and he’ll still hit a 25-foot fadeaway over you,” Justin said.

After one season, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Ingram with the second overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft. “Every day in the gym, you see something ridiculous,” Justin said. “Ridiculous plays. Top 10 level plays. It’s fun. It pushes you. It’s amazing.”

The following season, Krzyzewski used his full complement of scholarships to recruit another stellar class: four five-star recruits, one four-star recruit and a three-star recruit. Without a scholarship available for the youngest Robinson, Justin became a walkon. He lifted, competed, studied and banged with future first round picks (the Boston Celtics took freshman Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick in the 2017 draft). Then, a scholarship became available and a locker room explosion commenced.

“I was very surprised,” said Justin, a psychology major. “I was getting ready to go work out and they were in there with water guns and shaving cream and confetti. It was really fun though. We go through so much together and spend so much time together, these guys become like another family for you.”

From rail thin freshman to muscled locker room leader, from walkon to scholarship player, Justin has grown in ways that have impressed Duke coaches.

“His body has dramatically changed for the better,” said assistant coach Jon Scheyer. “His best friend as soon as he stepped on campus was our strength coach, Will Stephens. He has added an incredible amount of strength, but his conditioning and ability to battle through fatigue have also come a long way.

“Justin could shoot when he got here but he has become a better shooter and a more complete player. He has improved defensively – rebounding and protecting the basket – to the point where he has the ability to guard anyone from a point guard to a power forward. His communication on and off the floor is an important asset for our team, and he is really respected by all of his teammates.”

Justin is not sure how much he will play this season, how far he can go with basketball or what he will do with a psychology degree. But he knows this: Duke is everything he had hoped it would be.

“It’s as great as I expected,” he said, “and it’s as difficult as I expected. It’s been amazing but it’s been a lot of work. I enjoy working hard here.”

Justin’s impact extends far beyond the Duke basketball team. His gesture as a freshman inspired a senior to share it with hundreds at the team banquet, which prompted a newspaper to share it with thousands of readers. His friendliness and quiet leadership prompted a locker room celebration and inspired a video that went viral.

What kind of name and reputation does this young man possess? “Love this kid! Love this team!” wrote one fan who viewed the video on Instagram. Added another fan who saw it on Twitter: “Beyond awesome.”

It’s impossible to know how many have been touched but this much is clear: Justin’s Big Moment has logged more than 240,000 views on multiple social media platforms.  The world is watching another Robinson inspire the next generation.

3 thoughts on “The Transformation of Justin Robinson

  1. Great article. I used to love your column. In Express News!! You were a great writer. I also remember (for some reason?) that Donna Peacock had been your teacher at some point. I knew her at St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio. I always read the sport’s section 1st in the paper. The sports writers always seem to be the best!!! Maybe because the subject is so interesting!! Keep up the good work. Home u r enjoying your life.
    Carol Muir. mcarolmuir@gmail.com

  2. Great story and glad it was told. The whole time I was reading about this young man’s character I couldn’t help but think how obvious it was that he has great parents. I know you didn’t want the article focused on David Robinson because he is such a celebrity in his own right, however, David and Valerie Robinson both deserve to be highlighted and commended for their contribution by raising him to be such a remarkable young man!

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