Justin Robinson trying to lead Monmouth to new heights

Justin Robinson drives against Fairfield's Tyler Nelson. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics
Justin Robinson drives against Fairfield's Tyler Nelson. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics
Justin Robinson drives against Fairfield’s Tyler Nelson. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics

Justin Robinson guesses he was 8 or 9 years old when the star of Kingston High School’s basketball team approached him at a boys club in their hometown.

Robinson was by himself, diligently working on his shot. Tay Fisher had just finished his pickup game.

“Tay came over to work with me, and then he told me to come to the Kingston High School basketball camp later in the summer,” Robinson recalls.

Thus began a fitting friendship between a pair of diminutive guards who shared a competitive flair and the skills to play Division I ball.

Fisher, a 5-foot-9 sharpshooter, graduated high school in 2004 as Kingston’s all-time leading scorer with 2,119 points. He was a senior on the Siena team that upset Vanderbilt in the 2008 NCAA tournament, when he torched the Commodores for 19 points on 6-of-6 three-point shooting. That performance, he says, is why the Harlem Globetrotters offered him a contract and nicknamed him “Firefly.”

Robinson tracked Fisher’s career at Siena. He has followed his buddy’s globetrotting.

“We stay in contact all the time,” says Robinson, a 5-foot-8 sophomore at Monmouth.

Robinson estimates he was 5-foot-4 or 5-foot-5 when he started for Kingston’s varsity team as a freshman.

“He was significantly slighter than he is now, maybe even 20 pounds lighter, if I can remember correctly,” says Mark Wyncoop, an assistant at Kingston for Robinson’s entire career.

Wyncoop recalls Robinson getting frustrated by the physicality of the bigger, stronger 17- and 18-year-olds he faced as a freshman. But Robinson never quit, and averaged seven assists per game.

“He worked his way through that,” Wyncoop says. “He competes. He never gave up. He never felt sorry for himself. He just kept after it.”

As a junior, he was a Varsity845 first-team all-star. He led Kingston to a Section IX title as a senior, earning section and county Player of the Year honors.

Robinson attributes the toughness he tapped to prevail to two sources: his hometown and a group of mentors.

Growing up in Kingston, he says, “was pretty rough.” He abstained from the violence and gangs that consumed so many of his peers. “You’ve got to be confident and tough,” he says.

But Fisher, as well as former Kingston star Jesse Cannie and girls standout Rachel Coffey, also guided Robinson. “I had good role models that I looked up to,” Robinson says.

Fisher, in particular, shared sage advice.

“He always told me that just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t play basketball,” Robinson says. “He’s probably Kingston’s best player to ever play there, so he kind of instilled that in me. He taught me to always be tough and don’t let anybody undermine your talent just because you’re a little smaller.”

Justin Robinson has become a leader for Monmouth. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics
Justin Robinson has become a leader for Monmouth. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics

Robinson has carried that advice with him to Monmouth, where King Rice’s bunch is a little smaller in cachet than storied MAAC foes like Iona, Siena and Manhattan.

Monmouth went 11-21 with a 5-15 league record last season, its first in the MAAC. Robinson was a freshman and averaged 7.1 points and 3.0 assists in 22.4 minutes per game.

His role has expanded this year, and he tops the team at 12.6 points and 4.0 assists in 31.2 minutes per game. His value has extended beyond the box score, though, as Rice and his staff have asked Robinson to lead vocally as well.

“They tell me that more and more every day because I’m the point guard,” Robinson says, “so everybody looks at me to tell them what to do. I’ve got to be the vocal leader.”

Wyncoop says he first noticed Robinson’s leadership qualities during Robinson’s junior year of high school.

“He had a knack for getting guys to perform or knowing what it was that each guy needed to perform, whether it was a couple of harsh words, whether it was a little pat on the back,” Wyncoop says. “He had the pulse of that group, and it was apparent that he was able to do that even at that age.”

Robinson is three years older now and has almost two years of college experience to tap. Wyncoop still sees those qualities from afar, as Robinson has led the Hawks (13-12, 9-5) into a third-place tie with Manhattan.

The Hawks were the only undefeated MAAC team four games into the conference slate. They beat Iona in a thrilling 92-89 shootout on Dec. 7 in West Long Branch, and Robinson had 25 points. Canisius is the only other MAAC team with a win over Iona.

“It was a wakeup call for us and the rest of the league that we’re not here to just play basketball,” Robinson says. “We’re here to compete for a championship, just like every other team in our league.”

It would be the program’s first conference title since 2006, when the Hawks won the NEC.

The road there might require another victory over Iona, which has appeared in two NCAA tournaments since Tim Cluess was hired in 2011. It might require a takedown of Siena on the same floor the Saints celebrated three straight MAAC championships, and it might require a win over a Manhattan team that swept the season series.

Those three schools have secured 13 of the MAAC’s last 17 automatic bids to the Big Dance.

That history could be overwhelming.

But as Fisher told Robinson, the size of a player or, by extension, a team’s trophy case does not really matter.

“Just remember what happened last year,” Robinson said. “We’re not satisfied.”