Prior to 2015 NBA Draft, pretty much everybody knew who the top three picks would be — Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Jahlil Okafor were almost certainly coming off the board in some order; the only thing left up in the air was who would go where. Beyond that trio, one of the hottest names on draft night was that of Duke forward Justise Winslow. He was reportedly in play as high as No. 4 overall, and all you could hear about him was how many different teams were in love with him as a prospect. And yet as the night wore on, Winslow kept falling further down the board — even as multiple teams worked to trade up and nab him.
The Charlotte Hornets famously turned down four picks from the Boston Celtics, who were prepared to move up for Winslow, in order to take Frank Kaminsky at No. 9. The Celtics offered virtually the same deal to the Heat at No. 10, but Pat Riley practically laughed in their faces and snatched up Winslow for himself instead. It made almost no sense to anybody how Winslow — an elite multi-positional defender with above-average court vision, ball-handling skills, and rebounding ability whose only relative weakness was his jumper — ended up tumbling to No. 10 overall, and the reaction on Basketball Twitter was, in some circles (read: my brain), apoplectic.
All these teams letting Pat Riley get Justise Winslow should be ashamed of themselves.
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) June 26, 2015
In the three-plus years since that night, however, Winslow has merely turned into a perfectly competent — if not exactly standout — role player.
He’s defended several positions whenever on the floor, just about exactly as well as one would have expected him to coming into the draft. During his two full seasons, he has ranked 14th and 12th among small forwards in ESPN’s Defensive RPM. He’s one of just 29 players 6-foot-7 or shorter since 2000 to post multiple seasons with 2.4 Defensive Win Shares or more within his first three years in the league. He’s an excellent defensive rebounder for his size. He gets his hands on a ton of passes and he has become a better shot-blocker.
His combination of height, length (6-foot-10), strength (225 pounds), and agility makes him a perfect fit for the modern NBA, given what teams ask their wings to do on the defensive end of the floor these days. Ask him to lock somebody down one-on-one and he can do it. Ask him to track a shooter around screens and he can do it. Ask him to play in a hybrid zone and he can do it. Ask him to switch and he can do it.
He’s fully capable of defending any of the five positions for a few seconds at a time or more, and he can easily handle one through four on a nearly full-time basis. Per an analysis of Second Spectrum’s tracking data performed by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus, Winslow was one of just seven players in the NBA last season who defended four different positions on at least 15 percent of his defensive possessions. (He also came nail-bitingly close to being the only player in the league who defended each of the five positions on at least 10 percent of his defensive possessions.) That type of versatility is incredibly valuable and allows the Heat to surround Winslow with all different combinations of players — a key for them since their roster as currently constructed is longer on depth than star talent.
And yet, heading into the final year of his rookie contract, there are still questions about Winslow’s place not just in the league, but on his own team. The Heat have already handed out long-term, high-dollar-value contracts to two wings (Josh Richardson and Dion Waiters) and a combo forward (James Johnson) that will keep them each on the roster through 2021. They also have monster-sized player options attached to Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, and Tyler Johnson for the 2019-20 season, plus Kelly Olynyk’s long-term deal. They’ve got a ton of money committed for the future, and a bunch of it is allotted to players who fill one or more of the same roles as Winslow. And none of that money even accounts for Wayne Ellington, who is signed only for next season but also brings the one thing Winslow doesn’t — elite outside shooting that draws the attention and respect of opposing defenders.
There’s also the matter of Winslow’s offensive development. He’s certainly a functional offensive player. His skill set is diverse and the Heat can use him in a host of different roles in a pinch. It’s not uncommon to see Winslow, during the same game, working as a primary ball-handler, a screener in pick-and-rolls, a spot-up shooter, and a dunker-spot lurker. His size and agility lend themselves well to working all over the floor and with all different kinds of teammates next to him.
But he’s not necessarily elite at any one thing offensively. Through his first three seasons, Winslow’s been just an okay offensive rebounder. (The Heat generally do not place an exceptionally high value on offensive rebounds, preferring most of their non-Whiteside players get back in transition.) His usage rate has always been far too low for a player with his skills. He’s been only an average-ish passer, even if his floor vision suggests he should be able to make strides in that area. He knocked down 38 percent of his 3s in Year 3, but he made only 26 percent on a similar number of attempts during his first two years combined, his release is labored, and even while making a great percentage last season he did not get treated by defenses like a good shooter. He’s gotten to the free-throw line occasionally, but not a lot. And he’s struggled to finish near the rim, from the back half of the paint, and especially on mid-range attempts — and that’s true whether you compare his numbers to guards, wings, or bigs.
As a result, Miami’s offense has been consistently better with Winslow on the bench.
Winslow is strong, stout, and surprisingly crafty; he’s the type of player who could be really dangerous off the drive. But he doesn’t drive very often (he averaged a paltry 4.8 drives per game last season) and has struggled to finish over larger players at the rim when he does: in three seasons, he’s shooting 41.2 percent on the drive and has only 56 drive-and-dish assists. To put that in perspective, consider that Dion Waiters had 52 drive-and-dish assists in just 29 games last season. Winslow’s not really one of those truly damaging perimeter players who catches the ball and just waits for the defense to recover before making his next move; but neither is he aggressive enough, often enough to truly make rotating defenses pay. And that’s dispiriting given the diversity of his skill set.
By virtue of not playing very many minutes alongside Whiteside during Miami’s first-round loss to the 76ers last season, the team’s offense was actually better with Winslow on the floor during the playoffs. But during his previous playoff stint as a rookie, his offensive flaws were magnified and the offense was significantly worse with him in the game. He seems like a pretty good offensive player who nevertheless is capable of being exploited by smart defenses and thus holds the offense back. That seems likely to continue to be the case unless and until he becomes more aggressive, whether off the bounce or with his shot.
And yet, he is still only 22 years old. He’s basically only played two full seasons, and the construction of his team changed drastically between his first and third years in the league, to the point where he became a fill-in-the-blanks bench guy by Year 3 when it looked like he was going to be an important starter before he got injured early in Year 2. Everybody can always use fill-in-the-blanks guys, especially those who have the capability to be more than that. Everybody can always use multi-positional defenders who can play alongside nearly any teammate. And everybody can use athletic, 22-year-old, 6-foot-7 wings.
There is a place for Winslow in the league, both right now and long-term. Is it in Miami? Maybe. Maybe not. The team has been looking into Jimmy Butler trades, and Winslow’s name has been bandied about in those discussions. They reportedly shopped him around a couple times over the last two years, but ultimately decided against making any deals. He seems like the kind of guy who could either be a franchise cornerstone or gone by the end of the year, with neither result coming as much of a surprise. That’s a strange position to be in — especially for a former top-10 pick who has not exactly been a disappointment as a pro. But given the relative lack of firm information the team has on what exactly Winslow is right now, it’s also a position that makes a good deal of sense.