By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As the University of Virginia men’s basketball team prepared to play at Georgia Tech last weekend, demand exceeded supply for Anthony Robinson. He’s from Peachtree City, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, and he had to secure extra tickets from teammates to accommodate the 15 family members and friends who wanted to join him at McCamish Pavilion.
Robinson’s cheering section watched the Wahoos defeat the Yellow Jackets, but his supporters will have to wait to see him play in his home state. The 6-foot-10 freshman is redshirting this season, and he watches UVA’s games from the bench in a sweatsuit.
Still, Robinson said, to be back in Atlanta “was really cool, because when I was younger, we used to go to Georgia Tech basketball and football games. I used to love being in the crowd and cheering on the players, and it’s just an unreal feeling being on the court and seeing all the fans around you. I can only imagine what playing is like.”
The list of players who have redshirted during Tony Bennett’s tenure as Virginia’s head coach is a long one, and it includes Devon Hall, Jay Huff, De’Andre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, Kadin Shedrick, Jack Salt, Francis Caffaro and Leon Bond III. All benefited from the extra time they trained under Mike Curtis, the program’s renowned strength and conditioning coach. Two of the Cavaliers’ scholarship players are redshirting this season: Robinson and guard Christian Bliss.
“It’s been great,” Robinson said of his experience. “I’ve really learned a lot. I’ve definitely seen my game grow so much, and I’ve changed physically. I’ve gotten stronger, and also mentally I’m more aware of things that I wasn’t aware of before and just learning so much about the game of basketball.”
That Bliss is following the same path “definitely helps,” Robinson said. “We’re able to relate on a lot of the struggles of redshirting, but also a lot of the benefits and positives of it, and it’s really created a closer bond between us.”
The challenges are more mental than physical, Robinson said. Patience is required, and there’s no immediate gratification. “But I’ll say that maybe my faith has taught me that good things take time and that you don’t want to rush God’s timing, and I felt that it was in God’s plan for me to redshirt.”
Robinson’s mentors include UVA assistant coach Isaiah Wilkins, who’s also from the Atlanta area. “He’s my little brother,” Wilkins said, smiling.
A former ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Wilkins started 83 games during his UVA career, and he has considerable wisdom to impart.
“I’ve just learned what it’s like playing here, what to expect, things I need to be the best player that I can be, because he was in the same situation,” Robinson said. “So he’s definitely helped me be able to not only survive, but get the most out of the whole experience and just attack every day with the right mentality.”
During practices, Wilkins sometimes plays alongside Robinson on the Green Machine, the Cavaliers’ scout team. They also work together in one-on-one sessions apart from practice.
To better assist Robinson, Wilkins said, he spoke to Hall and Salt about their first-year experiences at Virginia, “just so I have some [frame of reference]. I didn’t redshirt. I didn’t play a whole lot my first year, but I did some Green Machine workouts. It’s a different mentality. It’s about self-discipline and laying it on the line, even on days where you know there’s technically no game for you. Your workouts are your game.”
Robinson, who weighed 224 pounds when he arrived on Grounds last June, is up to about 245, and his athleticism is impossible to miss. When he dunks, he’s “trying to rip the rim off, which is beautiful,” Wilkins said.
“He does have some tools. We’ve got big guys, but not as bouncy as he is. It’s crazy to see, because I think he’s just starting to realize how big he is and how he can move people, and that’s kind of his gift.”
Bennett focuses during practices primarily on the players who are suiting up for games this season, he said, but he’s charting the progress of Robinson and Bliss, too.
“Every now and then I’ll bark at them or I’ll give them a compliment just to make sure they know I’m watching,” Bennett said, “but when I’m watching practice film, then I can slow it down and really watch them.”
Robinson’s athletic pedigree is impressive. His mother, Ariana, played volleyball at Tennessee, and his father, Tony, played football at Georgia Tech. Robinson’s maternal grandfather, George Wilson, had a remarkable basketball career. He helped Cincinnati win the NCAA title in 1962, played on the United States team that won the gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games, and spent seven years in the NBA. He passed away last summer.
“As a kid, I wasn’t very aware [of Wilson’s accomplishments], because I didn’t really understand the significance of it,” Robinson said. “But as I’ve started to pursue a career in basketball. I’ve really understood how impactful he was.”
Robinson, who was born in Lithonia, Ga., moved with his family to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, when he was about to turn 10. His mother had accepted a teaching position there, and the Robinsons lived in Abu Dhabi for four years.
“It was amazing,” Robinson said. “I loved living there.”
He attended Raha International School and, later, Canadian International School, and many of his classmates were fellow expats. Robinson also traveled extensively with his family, visiting such countries as India, Sri Lanka, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Egypt and Zimbabwe.
Upon returning to the United States, the family settled in Peachtree City, about 30 miles southwest of Atlanta. Robinson was heading into his sophomore year of high school, and he’d spent a sizable chunk of his childhood in “a country where things were different,” he said, “so it was definitely a big adjustment to adjust to being back here.”
He attended the local public school, Starr’s Mill High, for two years, then transferred in 2021 to Christ School in Arden, N.C., near Asheville. He enrolled at Christ School as a boarding student and reclassified to the Class of 2023.
One of his teammates in the Team Huncho AAU program attended Christ School and told Robinson it was a place he could grow academically and on the basketball court.
“Recruiting wasn’t really going very well,” Robinson said, “and I needed to be at a place where I could develop. I needed to really take the next step to get to the next level.”
It was a gradual process. “I wasn’t really very coordinated until maybe the summer going into senior year,” Robinson said. “That’s when I started finally getting the hang of things. And that’s when I really started getting scholarship [offers].”
As a senior in 2022-23, Robinson averaged 10 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots per game and helped the Greenies win a state title. Being away from home wasn’t always easy, Robinson said, but his experience as a boarding student “definitely helped me adjust and be ready for college. Like I’ve already had a roommate for however many years, so I’m used to it. And it’s kind of like a similar schedule: we wake up, go to classes, go to lift, go to practice, and then come back and stay in the dorm.”
In November 2022, he signed with South Florida. But after USF dismissed head Brian Gregory last spring, Robinson asked for and received a release from his letter of intent. Among the schools who pursued him this time around was UVA, and Robinson was a late addition to Bennett’s recruiting class for 2023-24.
Each of his parents had redshirted as freshmen, Robinson said, and they supported the Hoos’ development plan for him.
“We have a very good track record with guys who are willing to work with Coach Curtis and put in the extra work,” Bennett said.
To players considering concentrating on development for a year, Bennett said, the coaching staff stresses “that if they’re not willing to really work, they shouldn’t do it, because they’re attacking the redshirt. I think that’s the idea: Attack the day and become better.”
That’s been Robinson’s approach, Wilkins said. “He works, and that’s all you can ask for. He does stuff outside of what we do. You can hear the ball bouncing in the gym, and he’s here. Jordan Minor actually has been really good for him, because I think he took [Robinson] under his wing and Jordan’s a hard worker too.”
Working with the Green Machine in practice helps players who are redshirting, Bennett said, because “they’re allowed to have some success or screw up, and they’re not under the microscope.”
Robinson is newer to the game than some of his peers, Bennett noted, “but he does some things naturally that you just can’t coach or teach. He can go up and block a shot, grab a rebound, finish a dunk. You need those physical bodies, and I think his journey will be incremental, step by step, but what could happen at the end of it could be really fun to see if he just keeps getting better and better.”
Virginia (14-5, 4-3) plays Saturday afternoon at Louisville (6-13, 1-7). The Hoos’ post players include one of Robinson’s classmates, 6-foot-11 Blake Buchanan, who’s averaging 3.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 14.6 minutes per game.
“I think those two will be formidable guys that can play in the frontcourt,” Bennett said. “Blake is quick and mobile and Anthony is powerful and explosive, and so you have that dimension and that’s good.”
Wilkins said: “It’s actually nice for them to have each other. I don’t think they realize it yet. But there’ll be games where there’s matchups for both of them and they’ll be able to kind of rest easy knowing that their partner has their back. It’s a great thing, I think, to come in with a partner, because you do get to build that chemistry together.”
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