It's easy to see that Junior Robinson is a special player.
The 5-foot-5 senior guard jets all over the court and puts up gaudy offensive numbers for the Mount St. Mary's men's basketball team. Not many players that size are able to compete at the NCAA Division I level, much less lead their conference in scoring with more than 21 points per game.
While that certainly makes him unique, it's not what truly makes him special. The Mebane, N.C., native has the rare ability to put up eye-popping individual numbers while also making the players around him better.
Everything he does is for the betterment of the team.
"Our offensive system has a lot to it," Mountaineers head coach Jamion Christian said. "It takes time to really understand it completely, and he's the first guy I've had with me who has had a full opportunity to really lock into the nuances of the offense. He leads [the Northeast Conference] in scoring and is close in assists. To be able to score like that and still improve how those around him play, makes his teammates want to play with him and for him. They are his biggest cheerleaders. His maturity has spiked at the same time that his level of play has spiked, and he has an unbelievably high basketball IQ."
The spike in maturity and production really began last March, when Robinson caught the nation's attention by leading the Mountaineers to the NEC title and a one-point victory against New Orleans in the NCAA Tournament First Four. After averaging 14 points per game to garner second-team all-conference honors during the season, Robinson practically willed his team to the NEC championship.
He scored 22 points, including six in the final two minutes, during the Mount's 76-73 quarterfinal win against Sacred Heart, and then totaled 18 and 22 points in the semifinals and finals, respectively, to earn all-tournament honors. And in the 67-66 First Four victory against New Orleans, he poured in 23 points, including the go-ahead basket with 1:29 remaining.
"I just really want to make winning plays that help the team," Robinson said. "I am just really locked into winning, and all I wanted to do was to help the team win and live the dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament."
His postseason heroics have proven to be no fluke. Robinson, who averages 21.7 points per game and ranks second in the NEC in assists at 5.3 per contest, has scored in double figures in all 21 games, eclipsing 20 points 15 times, scoring 25 or more six times and exceeding 30 points three times.
"He knows where guys are supposed to be in the offense at all times," Christian said. "If guys are out of position by three or four feet, he can show them where he needs them to be just through conversations in practice. His evolution is more about others than it is about him. It's more about him being unselfish. When your best player buys into sharing the ball like that and making those around him better, you have a chance to be pretty good."
Christian and his staff are analytics junkies and realized last season that the best college players were shooting the ball more than Robinson. They thought he was being a little too unselfish, so they worked hard to convince him that he should be attempting more 3-pointers and moved him off the ball more often.
"All coaches think they have great systems, but if we can get the best player to buy in to all parts of the system, that is a huge key to being successful," Christian said. "We encouraged him to shoot more threes. He has the best range of any player I've coached, but he is so unselfish we had to tell him, 'Hey man, it's OK for you to shoot 10 to 12 threes a night. Don't feel selfish. For you, it's a good shot, and the team needs you to take those shots.'"
Moving Robinson away from the ball on occasion allowed him to receive it in a position to shoot, drive or pass, which opened up the floor for him to get better looks at the basket. With his knowledge of the offense, Robinson was able to score more and distribute the ball to his teammates in better position for them to score.
Robinson's scoring and assists are up substantially over last season, which has helped the youngest team in the country -- it has three seniors, a sophomore and 12 freshmen -- overcome a difficult nonconference schedule to compile a 10-11 overall record and 4-4 mark in the NEC.
The Mountaineers have won four of their past six games, scoring at least 78 points in five of those contests. Robinson has twice captured NEC Player of the Week honors during that time, with two of his teammates also earning Rookie of the Week accolades. Could it be that the Mount is on the verge of another magical run?
"With 12 freshmen, I knew that I had to be a leader by making plays and scoring myself or helping my teammates score," Robinson said. "I told them straight up that we would be doubted all year and counted out and that they had to come in with a chip on their shoulder and ready to play hard. We are slowly, but surely getting there. Obviously, there are some things we can tinker with, but if we can figure it out, overall I think we have a really good team that could possibly turn out to be the best team ever at the Mount and go on to win the NEC again. As long as we keep working, the sky is the limit."
Those words -- coming from a guy many thought was too small -- carry a lot of weight.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mount St. Mary's University