'Raising the Bar Every Game,' Justise Winslow Becoming Exactly What Heat Wanted

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2016

Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow (20) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

MIAMI — Justise Winslow rarely tips his emotional hand, opting for stoicism in the face of virtually every situation.

That should make him a tough read, and in the case of Winslow the person, it absolutely does. But with 43 big league games under his belt, Winslow the player looks exactly how NBA draft scouts said he would.

For better and worse.

The Early Successes

Winslow's maturity demands a double-take of his birth certificate. The 19-year-old was born less than eight months before Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut.

One might think, then, the Miami Heat would give Winslow a long leash to weather the typical rookie growing pains and learn from his mistakes. But he's seemingly shortened the rope by consistently showcasing skills, smarts and savvy beyond his years.

"You always want to kind of be easy on the rookies," Chris Bosh said, "but he is raising the bar every game with his maturity and ability and knack to play defense."

While most clubs would settle for encouraging defense by a freshman, Winslow's stopping powers have been a different "E" word—elite.

Nov 23, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) is pressured by Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow (20) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

He routinely accepts Miami's toughest defensive assignment and promptly forces that player out of his comfort zone. He's guarded some of the league's greatest scorersKevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony—and held all of his matchups 2.1 percentage points below their normal field-goal percentages.

"Nineteen years old," Dwyane Wade said. "I can't imagine what that would have been like for me—guarding Kobe [Bryant] and [Allen] Iverson at 19. I wasn't ready. I just know when he's on the floor, we're a lot better defensive team."

It's one thing to hear praise from a teammate. It's another when the stat sheet backs that up.

But there may be no greater individual achievement than earning the respect of one's peers. And Winslow, barely halfway into his rookie run, has already crossed that bridge.

"He's got a lot to learn, but he is a good, solid defender," said Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, who likened Winslow to younger versions of himself and San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. "He has great feet. He's real aggressive, and that's what you want out of your young defenders."

Perimeter stoppers have never been more valuable. Of the 19 players who are averaging 20-plus points, all but two primarily play the 1, 2 or 3 spots.

"This is a dynamic wing league," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "This is a league of speed, quickness, athleticism. Guys who can do a lot at the 6'6" to 6'9" range. And that's one of the reasons we drafted him. You have to be able to have guys on your roster that can compete at those positions."

At times, he's flashed his athletic prowess in the open floor and his vision in the half court, but his best work often occurs outside the spotlight—contesting shots, plugging pass lanes, battling for rebounding real estate and racing for loose balls.

He doesn't have glue-guy potential; he has glue-guy abilities right now. But the one piece missing from his present puzzle will determine the height of his ceiling.

The Ongoing Struggle

January 11, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow (20) shoots the basketball during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Heat 111-103. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY S
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Until Winslow can change the narrative, it will stand out like a bad decision on a permanent record—he can't shoot.

His strength and athleticism have helped him become a fairly reliable point-blank finisher, but every other shot has been a challenge. He owns a pedestrian 40.8 field-goal percentage overall, and it's almost surprising that figure isn't lower when digging deeper into his shooting rates.

Justise Winslow's Shooting Woes
Shot DistanceFGM-FGAFG%
5 to 9 Feet2-922.2
10 to 14 Feet3-650.0
15 to 19 Feet10-2638.5
20 to 24 Feet20-6829.4
25+ Feet4-1625.0
Source: NBA.com

It's a testament to Winslow's versatility that his wayward shooting hasn't sabotaged his impact. In fact, he leads healthy Heat regulars with a plus-3.9 on-court net efficiency rating. And his off-court mark of minus-1.5 trails only Bosh's minus-2.0.

"When I'm out there, I'm going to try to make plays," Winslow said. "Whether it's coach putting the ball in my hands or defending the other team's player, I'll give it my best shot."

Now, imagine how good his best could be if he had a trusty jumper at his disposal.

Given Miami's team-wide struggles from range, Winslow's individual issues become even tougher to mask.

The Heat already know they aren't getting spacing from two of their starters (Wade and Hassan Whiteside), and they've been unable to depend on the likes of Luol Deng (35.1 percent), Gerald Green (33.0) and Goran Dragic (32.7) for consistent sniping. But that trio at least has the potential to ignite. Winslow hasn't had enough success to even be considered streaky (26.8).

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

He's had five outings with multiple triples and 28 without any. That's why the Golden State Warriors felt comfortable leaving him unattended during their Jan. 11 home win over Miami, a tactic that others have utilized against the Heat.

When Winslow is only hitting 32.1 percent of his threes with at least six feet between him and the closest defender, there's no reason for opposing clubs to include him in their three-point coverage.

"I was really high on him in summer league and he has lowered my expectations," one scout told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "He's not a catch-and-shoot player. He can't come off screens and shoot. It's almost like a set shot."

It's also a work in progress. As comfortable as Winslow has looked in (most parts of) his current role, it can be easy to forget how young he is and how much time he has to expand his talents.

The Foundation for the Future

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

To borrow Dennis Green's infamous sound bite, Winslow is who we thought he was. He's a gifted athlete, relentless defender, struggling shooter and crafty passer.

It's not a perfect collection of skills, but it is a deep one. And he already understands how to use it in a way that positively impacts the bottom line.

"I just live by winning, whatever it takes to win," he said. "I think all the guys in the locker room believe in that."

Winslow is special. From the chiseled 6'7", 225-pound frame to the wise-beyond-his-years mental makeup to the style best defined by the three magical words "makes winning plays," he's a highly intriguing combination of NBA-ready rookie and upside-rich prospect.

Just like scouts said he would be.

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played Jan. 26.


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