Justise Winslow's Time Has Come Faster Than Anyone Could Have Predicted

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 27, 2016

SAN ANTONIO, TX - OCTOBER 14:  Justise Winslow #20 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket against the San Antonio Spurs on October 14, 2016 at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

MIAMI — Gearing down after his final preseason tuneup, Justise Winslow scans the Miami Heat locker room as his eyes and mind marry the franchise's present to its past.

There's Beno Udrih squatting at Dwyane Wade's old locker, a space the 34-year-old won't hold through the weekend roster cuts. Wayne Ellington discusses his quad contusion in front of Luol Deng's former dwelling. James Johnson gets dressed where Joe Johnson did five months ago. Chris Bosh's locker, just to the right of Winslow's, sits empty as it has throughout the exhibition season.

"With those guys gone," Winslow tells Bleacher Report, "I think other than maybe Goran [Dragic], Hassan [Whiteside], UD [Udonis Haslem], I think I have the most minutes as a Heat player overall."

The 20-year-old sophomore is right. Roughly 17 months removed from being the 10th overall pick of the 2015 NBA draft, Winslow has seen the fourth-most action with Miami of anyone on the roster.

And he's already tasked with putting this organization back on the basketball map.

"Guys have been telling me it's my turn to step up and grow and fill that void," Winslow says.

There's so much confidence behind those words that it's easy to forget his career is moving at ludicrous speed. In 2014, he was guiding Houston's St. John's School to a state championship. Two years later, he's a budding NBA franchise face.

But rather than pump the brakes for a quick reality check, he'd prefer acceleration.

"That's what I want," he said. "That's what I've been working for my whole life—to make it to the NBA. Not only that but to be a star and have my own team one day. This is the next step in me progressing and getting there, expanding my role and growing as a leader."

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: A portrait of Justise Winslow #20 of the Miami Heat on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

His aim is as ambitious as it gets, though far from guaranteed to come to fruition.

He wasn't a top-10 scorer in his rookie class (6.4 points per game, 13th) or even the most potent freshman on the Heat (Josh Richardson, 6.6). Winslow's 8.4 player efficiency rating—plagued by a jumper that rarely found its mark—ranked dead last among the 117 players to log at least 2,000 minutes. He was even a healthy scratch during one of Miami's playoff games.

But while all of that was true, the Heat still fared 2.9 points better per 100 possessions with Winslow last season. And head coach Erik Spoelstra has always maintained that if you judge him by box scores alone, you're shortchanging his importance.

"He understands that there are many different ways to impact a game and winning," Spoelstra said. "That's what I really like about Justise. He does it on both ends of the court. He does the small things. He does the little things that no one wants to do."

Winslow defended all five positions as a rookie. He didn't have the scoring opportunities of a typical lottery pick, because he played alongside two future Hall of Famers on a 48-win team. So he made himself a malleable weapon, crashing the glass one night, setting the table another, slashing and scoring the next.

What he lacks in perimeter proficiency—an area that received the lion's share of his offseason attention—he's compensated for with glue-guy skills. The hope is that he can add outside shooting and reliable scoring to his arsenal, creating the same kind of two-way package seen in the likes of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler—models commonly referenced for Winslow, which he uses himself.

"All their growth processes were different, but they've all become great scorers," Winslow told Bleacher Report. "It's cool to see guys that are similar to you or have kind of taken similar paths and seeing that work out. It gives you confidence to stick with it and know that you can get to that level, too. You can kind of break out of that shell of just being known as a defender and become a two-way player."

George, Leonard and Butler are paragon wings—each an All-Star in his own right. But George was the fastest All-Star climber, and it still took him three years to get there. Butler needed four seasons, and Leonard didn't make the leap until year five.

As much as Heat fans would prefer a speedier spike, those inside the organization are weary of wanting too much too soon from a player who can't legally down an adult beverage before spring.

"He doesn't have to listen to anybody else's expectations," Spoelstra said. "There's so many things out there about who he needs to be or what position he needs to play, how many more points a game he has to score this year.

"He's going to get more minutes, more responsibilities. I want him to embrace that in a healthy way and not try to live up to anything coming from the outside."

MIAMI,FL - APRIL 27:  Head Coach Erik Spoelstra and Justise Winslow #20 of the Miami Heat talk things over against the Charlotte Hornets during the Eastern Conference playoffs First Round Game Five on April 27, 2016 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Of course, if Winslow can play beyond his age—a trademark of his since powering his high school to three league titles in four years—the Heat won't hold him back.

Goran Dragic isn't a superstar and won't suddenly become one at 30 years old. Hassan Whiteside, 27, has yet to provide the stability of a centerpiece, and he's fighting against the clock as a late bloomer. Udonis Haslem, the squad's sole captain, can only offer so much support from the sideline.

Miami needs a leading character for its next chapter. Winslow's remarkably rapid climb makes him the odds-on favorite to fill that role.

"The sky is the limit," Dragic told Bleacher Report. "He can be really good. You can see his desire. He understands that if he wants to be great, he needs to put a lot of work in. He's here every day. He comes early. He does his job. I feel like there's a really bright future for him."

                                                  

Heat Insider's Notebook 

Unity in Speech and Action

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 11:  The Miami Heat stand arm in arm during the national anthem during a preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets at American Airlines Arena on October 11, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The biggest story to come out of the Heat's final preseason game didn't involve the contest at all. Anthem singer Denasia Lawrence opened her jacket to reveal a Black Lives Matter shirt and then dropped to a knee for the song's duration.

While her action led the postgame reactions—"If she feels like that's the way she wants to stand for it, then more power to her," Ellington said—more conversation revolved around Miami's ongoing demonstrations. Throughout the preseason, all Heat players and coaches locked arms during the anthem, an act designed "to show unity and respect for the flag," Winslow said.

But this is only a stepping stone, players and coaches say, in their attempt to elicit change amid civil unrest.

"I think the most important thing that has come out of this is very poignant, thoughtful dialogue," Spoelstra said. "We've had great dialogue within our walls here. Hopefully this will lead to action."

                 

No No. 1

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26:  Hassan Whiteside #21 and Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat pose for a portrait during the 2016-2017 Miami Heat Media Day on September 26, 2016 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The Heat were predictable and potent in clutch situations—final five minutes with a margin of five points or less—last season. Wade, Bosh and Joe Johnson each spent time in the closer's role, helping Miami to a plus-15.2 clutch net rating that led the Eastern Conference and ranked fourth overall.

The Heat now have a brand-new bullpen, missing four of last season's top six fourth-quarter scorers. Dion Waiters owns the highest career scoring rate at just 12.8 points per game. Dragic (12.5) and Whiteside (11.7) are the only others in double digits.

There isn't a proven primary option on the roster.

Miami will inevitably have some clunky crunch-time moments. It's not clear where the ball will end up or even where the Heat should want it to go.

Whiteside's scores are often created by others, Waiters hasn't shot above 40 percent for two seasons, and Dragic works better in transition than half-court sets. If a youngster such as Winslow, Richardson or Tyler Johnson is the answer, this question might linger for some time.

But the glass-overflowing crowd can positively spin this. If the Heat aren't even sure where to turn, then defenses won't know where to load up. A closer-by-committee approach isn't a viable long-term option, but spreading the ball among five above-average-to-good options could temporarily cover the absence of a great one.

"With this type of team, we have so many guys, you don't know who's going to hurt you any given night," Derrick Williams said. "It might be Whiteside having 20 and 15. It might be Dragic having 20 points and 10 assists. You never know where it's going to come from on this team."

             

Getting to Know: James Johnson

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: A portrait of James Johnson #16 of the Miami Heat on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Bleacher Report: You're only the sixth NBA player to come out of Wyoming. Was it hard getting noticed in an area that doesn't produce a lot of players?

James Johnson: No, only 45 minutes you're in Colorado, so there's a lot of AAU teams. You can go there, play AAU and travel the same circuit as guys from New York, California.

Wherever you grew up, you still have the same opportunities. I just took advantage of them.

                

B/R: You grew up in a big, decorated family of martial artists. Where do you think that part of your background helps most on the basketball court?

JJ: Just not being afraid of anybody. Not being afraid to work harder than the next person. Just being relentless.

          

B/R: If there were some sort of tag team martial arts match, which teammate are you picking for your partner?

JJ: UD [Udonis Haslem].

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 18:  Udonis Haslem #40 of the Miami Heat handles the ball against the Toronto Raptors on December 18, 2015 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or u
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

B/R: I thought he might be your choice, but why?

JJ: Same kind of background I grew up from. I can tell he lived in poverty just like myself. I can tell that we didn't grow up with any silver spoons. He's a real, genuine, authentic, organic person.

          

B/R: What did the Heat tell you they liked in free agency?

JJ: They just liked my grittiness. They never had anything to say about my basketball game.

I think they knew about what I can do, but for them, it's more about what they can do to help me. That's the difference here. It's not what I can do to help them; it's what they can do to help me and just giving me the utmost confidence.

            

B/R: This is your fifth NBA city. What have you enjoyed most about living here?

JJ: I like food a lot, so I like the different ethnicities in food and having a lot of different choices.

          

All quotes obtained firsthand. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played Oct. 19.

Zach Buckley covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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