Men’s Basketball: Pitt recruit Robinson to bring leadership

By Lauren Kirschman

James Robinson’s favorite memory from his high school career isn’t one of the hundreds of… James Robinson’s favorite memory from his high school career isn’t one of the hundreds of points he scored or a perfectly placed pass.

It’s not when he learned of his four-star ranking and placement as the No. 10 point guard and No. 58 player in his class. He didn’t immediately recall a personal accolade or the day he committed to play at Pitt.

Instead, he thought of a moment from his freshman season when a teammate made a game-winning layup that earned the first of three consecutive conference championships for DeMatha High School in Maryland, where Robinson is now known as the team’s most important player.

He could’ve focused on the two key jump shots he made down the stretch that gave his team a one-point lead twice.

But he didn’t.

That unselfishness — that steady focus on the success of the team — is a quality that DeMatha head coach Mike Jones said will make the point guard a success at Pitt.

Next year, Robinson will join the Pitt men’s basketball team as part of an incoming class that includes five-star center Steven Adams and shooting guard Chris Jones. Junior Trey Zeigler, a transfer from Central Michigan, will also join the team next season.

Robinson started playing varsity basketball as a freshman — a rarity at a high profile basketball school like DeMatha — and won three consecutive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships. Next year, he’ll play Division I basketball at Pitt.

“He could score 20 points a night,” Jones said. “He could dominate the basketball. He could take a shot every time down the court if he wanted to … A lot of times, when guys get to decide who shoots it, they’ll call their own number. James doesn’t do that.”

He was a freshman when that layup went in and, in the words of Jones, tended to defer to the older members of the team. Now, fellow senior Kameron Taylor said that the team’s play grows hectic when Robinson isn’t on the floor for the Stags.

At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Robinson is a strong and broad-shouldered true point guard. He has a knack for using his strength and speed for bursting past defenders to get to the basket, where he either finishes with a layup or finds an open teammate with a well-placed pass.

Finding his way to Pitt

Pitt originally started recruiting Robinson when the guard was in ninth grade, but his primary recruiter, former assistant coach Pat Skerry, left to become the head coach at Towson last year.

Robinson said that Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon became more involved with his recruitment after Skerry’s departure. Although he was disappointed he wouldn’t get to play under Skerry, Robinson’s solid relationship with Dixon helped solidify his decision to commit to Pitt.

He can recall the moment he knew he wanted to come play basketball in Pittsburgh. He’d finished his official visit and was driving home with his parents when the desire to be a part of the team simply struck him.

“I was just like, ‘I could get used to that,’” he said. “I really enjoyed my time on campus. Being with the team and the coaches, I really got a good vibe.”

Pitt’s winning mentality was a draw for a player as team-oriented as Robinson. When he visited, the current members of the team talked about how hard they wanted to work to be successful, and Robinson wanted to be a part of that future.

He was also impressed with the ability of the coaching staff to develop players, pointing to senior guard Ashton Gibbs who progressed from a reserve during his freshman season to an All-Big East performer.

Although the Panthers struggled this season, finishing with just five Big East wins and missing both the NCAA and NIT tournaments to play in the College Basketball Invitational, Robinson said he believes the team members played as hard as they could.

“Obviously, the results weren’t there like a lot of people expected, but I think they will learn something from it, and next year they will pretty much know what they have to do,” he said.

Jones called Robinson’s style of play a perfect fit for the Pitt program, describing him as a “physical, tough-nosed guard.” He compared Robinson’s stature to those of former Pitt point guards Carl Krauser and Levance Fields — who were both known for their physical strength and toughness — but with more height.

“I just think he’s the kind of tough, blue collar, “I’m going to bring my lunch pail and go to work”-type player that Coach Dixon has had a lot of success with,” Jones said. “James is the epitome of that.”

Coming in as a leader

Robinson attributes his hard-working nature and leadership abilities to his parents, saying he lives by his father’s motto to stay humble and hungry. When he doesn’t have a good game, his parents are there to tell him to battle back and keep working.

He took that guidance and transferred it to his teammates. He shows his true leadership abilities after losses, when Taylor said he is the player in the locker room making sure the team stays together and telling his teammates to come back harder in the next game.

Robinson said he’ll do whatever is necessary for his team to win, whether that means involving his teammates, taking a charge or diving on the floor for a loose ball.

“I try to play under control as well as I can,” he said. “Unselfish, but if there are times when I need to assert myself more, then I can do that. I try to stay calm as possible and be an extension of the coach on the court.”

Robinson has always been a hard worker, Taylor said, calling the point guard the team’s “role model.” Even when the players are exhausted, Robinson is the team member who keeps pushing them in practice.

He began his high school career as a shooting guard while waiting for his turn to take over the team. Now, he has a commanding and dominating presence on the court, Jones said, and puts his teammates in the position to do what he wants them to do.

Off the court, Jones called Robinson laid back and quiet, although not shy — a man who doesn’t have to talk much, but is still the “alpha dog in the room.”

“He’s the one everybody watches for ‘What is James doing? How is James behaving? How is James reacting?’” Jones said.

He’s the player who shows up in the gym in the morning before school and stays after practice to put up extra shots. Jones stressed that in Robinson’s case, “hard worker” isn’t just a phrase.

And Jones has complete faith that Robinson will be able to excel at the collegiate level, both in the Big East Conference and then the Atlantic Coast Conference when Pitt makes the move. Jones laughed, saying that he didn’t mean to sound arrogant when he said Robinson didn’t need to improve in order to perform well in college.

“He’s already got the brain for it,” Jones said. “A lot of guys, physically they need to get stronger, but he doesn’t need to do that … He already has the work ethic that it’s going to take to be successful.”

Robinson likes to joke around and is quick with a laugh, but he knows when it’s time to be serious. He’s found that line in between the two extremes of fun and hard work that Jones said is so difficult for young men to walk.

“I think the other guys look at him as a very talented basketball player who gets good grades and doesn’t get in trouble and carries himself the way he’s supposed to,” Jones said.

Robinson is excited to have the opportunity to carry on the point guard tradition at Pitt that began with current assistant coach Brandin Knight, who starred at Pitt from 1999 to 2003.

Next year, he’ll have the chance to learn from Knight and current point guard Travon Woodall. He’s said he’s looking forward to learning everything they have to teach him, both on and off the court.

“I think I am going to be a guy who will do whatever it takes for us to win,” Robinson said. “I’ll go as hard as I can in practice, try to lead as much as I can and try to learn from everyone else who is already there.”