Justise Winslow Emerging as a Superstar in Duke's Run to 2015 NCAA Title Game

Art SpanderFeatured ColumnistApril 5, 2015

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INDIANAPOLIS — The big man, Jahlil Okafor, played as we expected. He was in the middle for Duke, a freshman who's supposed to be one-and-done.

Yet, the star of the young team, another freshman we'll never see develop to his full potential as an undergrad, was Justise Winslow.

Or as Charles Barkley, stunned by Winslow's skill and fire, was to call him, "Winston Justice."  Names are incidental, especially when Barkley is tossing them around. Talent is talent, however we label the person.

The 6'6" Winslow, who just turned 19, has that talent, and Saturday night in the opener of the NCAA Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium, he offered a large sample to Barkley and the rest of the nation, leading Duke to an 81-61 rout of Michigan State.

Chris Steppig/Associated Press

The Blue Devils, who will face Wisconsin in Monday's championship game, have reached the clouds on the play of three freshmen expected to be first-round picks in June's NBA draft: Tyus Jones, Okafor and Winslow.

So was it a surprise, then, the way Winslow took control, with team highs of 19 points and nine rebounds?

Not from the way he's played in the tournament. But before this stretch in March, he was largely considered the third best of the three, as if that's a sin. Talk about picking nits.

On the biggest stage, Winslow seized the opportunity and showed the nation how good he really is. Okafor is no doubt Duke's biggest name, but Winslow may just be its best player, with tournament averages of 15 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, while shooting 54 percent from the field, including 7-of-12 from three-point range. 

2015 NCAA Tournament Statistics (through 5 games)
Justise WinslowJahlil Okafor
FG Pct.54.264.8
3-Pointers7-12 (58.3 pct.)0-0

Against Gonzaga in the regional final last weekend, Winslow grabbed a key rebound and was fouled on the putback. He always seems to be where the ball is. Some observers see the size, the strength, the versatility and the skill and say he ought to go No. 1 in the draft, but of course that honor will likely go to his teammate, the 6'11" Okafor, whose presence forces the other team to change shots.  

Winslow, you might say, forces the other team to change direction. He's driving, he's thieving (two steals against Michigan State), he's leaping, he's virtually flying. He hasn't cleared tall buildings in a single bound, as of now, but give him time. He makes his own space.

Kevin Pelton @kpelton

They're totally different players, but the way Justise Winslow handles the ball is reminiscent of James Harden.

And make no mistake, in this tournament, when the Blue Devils need a big bucket, it's been Winslow to provide it. When they needed a big stop, it's been Winslow guarding the other teams' best players. When they needed someone to scrap for a loose ball, or to take a charge or to make important free throws, Winslow has looked every bit like the best player in the country. 

But it hasn't been like that all year. 

In a January game against  St. John's, which happened to be the 1,000th victory for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Winslow played a mere 10 minutes—Saturday night he was on the court 29—and didn't get a point, while Okafor had 17 points and Jones 22.

A postgame interviewer after that disappointing evening against St. John's asked Winslow, who is from Houston, if he wished he had gone somewhere other than Duke, where could be the main man.

But two days ago, when the Duke players sat for their session before the media, Winslow shook his head in the negative. "No," he insisted, "I never doubted myself or had a lack of confidence of anything like that."

Skip Bayless @RealSkipBayless

I haven't seen Mudiay but Justise Winslow is looking like the No. 3 pick behind Towns and Okafor. Does it all and plays so hard.

Great teams in basketball have players able to sacrifice for the good of the unit. Through the years, Duke's athletes, returning to the tournament time and again, have done as much.

They get their opportunity when they are needed. Winslow got his against Michigan State.

"We're just happy the way we played," said Winslow after the win over the Spartans. "Overall, we've been trying to hang our hats on the defensive end and stay strong and tough."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 04:  Justise Winslow #12 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts by slapping the floor after a play in the second half against the Michigan State Spartans during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 4, 2015 in
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

They were both. Michigan State, after grabbing a 14-6 lead, was figuratively squashed, shooting only 29.6 percent for the first half and eventually, because it really didn't matter, 40 percent overall. Once again, we harken to the adage: Defense wins.

"The offensive end takes care of itself," said Winslow. "We knew how we started the last half against Gonzaga. We came out with a lot of energy. We always say it's the defensive end—the game comes easier to us."

It came beautifully to Winslow, who has the power to play inside and the touch—he was 9-of-11 from the line—to score from anywhere.

Someone pointed out Winslow and Okafor are freshmen but don't play like freshmen, as if anyone who's had 37 games in college competition could be considered a freshman.

"Coach never treats us as freshmen," said Winslow, "hasn't since we've been here. He believed and trusted in us. When you have that belief from your coaching staff, all your teammates, yourself, having fun, playing the game we love, I think that's why we've been playing so well lately."

They couldn't play much better than they did against Michigan State. "Our kids have been great," said Krzyzewski.

In the next-to-last game of the season, a victory in the NCAA semis, none was greater than Justise Winslow.

Maybe it wasn't exactly the birth of a star. More accurately it was the re-emerging of one.

Art Spander has covered 33 consecutive Final Fours. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.