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Devin Robinson’s star turn lifts Florida — and reminds of his NBA potential

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Florida’s talented forward has professional aspirations. More games like Thursday’s may hasten their arrival.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Florida vs East Tennessee State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With a handful of scorers struggling, the Florida Gators needed a boost in Thursday’s first round matchup against East Tennessee State in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Devin Robinson provided.

Robinson’s 24-point, seven-rebound, two-block performance tied a career high for points and exhibited his tantalizing ability on the biggest stage of his career.

“He runs like a deer,” said Florida’s head coach, Mike White. “When he's in space, he's got the ability to get his feet set and make jumpers, and he can take off (through) physicality and explode to the rim.”

The rangy forward whose first step is more like a first gallop is just as exciting on the defensive end.

“I’m very versatile,” said Robinson. “I’m 6’9”. I can defend one through four. Me being long, 7’1” wing-span, it helps me a lot and gives me the advantage on defense. So I can play multiple positions, switch off on anybody.”

Some key sequences from Florida’s 80-65 win over ETSU were likely to have caught the attention of the four NBA scouts in attendance.

At the start of the game, after a Kevarrius Hayes deflection, Robinson sprinted down the floor from the short corner straight to the hoop. By the time Hayes had corralled the ball, Robinson was already at half court on a breakaway, ahead of every other player on the court. Hayes found him, and Robinson made it to the basket on two dribbles before raising the ball back and flushing a rim-rattling one-handed dunk.

“That got me going real early,” said Robinson. “My team, we were just trying to play defense, and I just tried to beat everybody down the court. I just try to run as hard and play as hard as I can, and my teammates found me when I did.”

Robinson’s personal 6-0 run early in the second half helped put the game away. First, after Kevaughn Allen penetrated the ETSU defense, he turned and threw the ball to Robinson on the three-point line. Robinson was covered, and his shot was contested by a charging ETSU defender — but truly contesting a three by Robinson requires height and athleticism the Buc did not have, and the shot swished in. After a defensive stop, Robinson hauled in the rebound, passed it off to one of his guards, and asked for the ball back, standing at the “M” on the court’s March Madness logo.

His shot barely touched the net.

“I thought it started with transition offense,” said Robinson. “Just running, just getting out and running with urgency, and it really carried over through most of the game. That’s why I came to the University of Florida. Play defense and run it. That’s why I thrive.”

Most NBA Draft experts project Robinson as a mid-second round pick if he declares for the draft this June, but there is quite the demand for forwards who are able to shoot the three, defend multiple positions, block shots, and turn every fast break into an emphatic finish. It’s possible that Robinson is underrated, and that continued good play in March could send his stock soaring.

Robinson declared for the NBA Draft last April, to the surprise of some, but ultimately withdrew his name from consideration, partially because of an injury. In his junior year, he addressed his biggest weaknesses to improve as a player. His improved shot selection and three point shooting have made the most significant differences. His 25.6 percent clip from three his freshman year has skyrocketed, up to 38.9 percent this year, and he is taking smarter shots, and finding open teammates when an opportunity for him does not present itself.

“(Improving my shooting) was a big priority of mine,” said Robinson. “It actually got better this past summer when I was injured. I just focused more on my form and just put more arch on the ball and just being more comfortable with where I am as a player and my shot. My guys out here are finding me so that just helps me 10 times more.”

His ball-handling gives him another advantage over other prospects in his range. Like Jonathan Isaac and Jayson Tatum, Robinson is able to create his own shot or get to the basket off of the dribble. Robinson’s game more closely resembles these surefire top ten picks than the prospects allegedly closer to Robinson’s range.

Harry Giles, Tyler Lydon, and Ivan Rabb are each projected as first-round picks because of their potential to develop some of the skills that Robinson already has. The best shooter, shot-blocker, ball handler, and perimeter defender is ranked as the worst out of this group.

Still, Robinson’s biggest weaknesses are a cause of concern. He has battled foot injuries in the past, and that stress fracture in his left foot that needed surgery and forced him out of the 2016 draft pool will be a red flag this year or next. A big man with bad feet can be one of the scariest things for an NBA executive.

Also, it is unclear what position Robinson would play in the NBA.

He starts at small forward for the Gators, and he is listed as a three by most NBA Draft analysts. But in the NBA, would he be better chasing an athletic wing on the perimeter, or pounding with stronger fours closer to the basket? Next season, he would have to play the three due to his slight frame, but his future might be as a forward to create a bigger mismatch. His rebounding ability would let him hold serve on the other end of the floor.

For now, Robinson is fine with being overlooked, just like Florida was in the wake of its sputtering close to the regular season. “We heard on ESPN and all that other bracketology stuff that we were gonna be the first upset,” he said. “That put a chip on our shoulder. We just had to come out here and prove everybody wrong.”

After an incredible first round performance, Robinson might be proving people wrong for years to come.