The Education of Justise Winslow
- With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh out of the picture, Justise Winslow may be the new face of the Heat. A host of mentors have helped him prepare for the new role.
Dwyane Wade is gone. Chris Bosh has been ruled out. Pat Riley is less than a few months removed from pitching Kevin Durant, and now his team is counting on a big year from Dion Waiters. The Heat are in strange place. "All the guys understand that there are opportunities right now," Erik Spoelstra tells reporters before a preseason game earlier this month. "What we're trying to do is get everybody on the same sheet of music."
"I look at it this way," Goran Dragic adds a few minutes later, "I didn't have control of it. I cannot help it. Of course the off–season went the way it went, but you know, I'm happy with my teammates. We had a great training camp. Some changes, but we're a young team who wants to prove to the league that we can play basketball."
In the middle of all this, is Justise Winslow. At his best, Winslow plays basketball like a hyper-intelligent linebacker. He's poised and under control, and can explode on people. It can happen on either end of the floor, too. Watching him bully his way through the 2014 NCAA tournament was so much fun that just for a second, he made it cool to cheer for Duke.
Also, at 20 years old now, Justise Winslow is probably the most important player on the Heat.
Right? Hassan Whiteside is making $100 million to be the star, and Dragic will be counted on as a scorer, but Winslow is the future. A year ago this week, he was with Dwyane Wade on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he'd ever played a game.
A year later, Winslow is the last member of the team off the bus. He settles into a seat in the lobby of the Four Seasons, and we start with the draft. In the weeks after the title at Duke, he was projected as a top–five, maybe top–three pick. Then came concerns about his shooting, his ballhandling, and his height. He slipped further than anyone expected when he landed with the Heat at 10, but Winslow denies any lingering resentments over this. "As far as me falling," he says, "It all kinda made sense. The two places I thought I could go higher were probably New York or Orlando, but all the other picks made sense."
He lists the first seven picks and explains each team’s decision. Then I interrupt to point out that Detroit and Charlotte needed wings, too. Does he go any harder against guys like Stanley Johnson and Frank Kaminsky? "Nah. I go extra hard every game."
Two days after the draft, Winslow was having lunch at Wade's house. They talked about South Beach restaurants, what to expect from practices, the coaches, and what Wade thought of his game. Once the season began, he entered a locker room full of veterans with Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dragic, and eventually Joe Johnson. With a bench unit full of young guys and the veterans starting, they turned into the hottest team in the NBA after the All-Star break. Then, by the time they got to the playoffs, Bosh was sidelined, Whiteside sprained an ankle, and Winslow was forced to start as a 6'7” center. He actually held his own, but the Heat lost in seven games. Then came Whiteside's $100 million deal, the Wade acrimony, and Bosh's diagnosis. As rookie seasons go, it's hard to imagine a more vivid look at the league than everything Winslow just experienced.
Winslow handled it well, or at least better than most teenagers would. "Last year he was a rookie," Dragic says, "But when you watched him play, he was not a rookie. He has such a high IQ, high basketball IQ."
"He's an aggressive, savvy young man," Spoelstra says. "He understands that there are many different ways to impact a game and winning. That's what I really like about Justise. He does it on both ends of the floor. He does the small things that nobody wants to do."
That's not to say the transition to the NBA was seamless. "Guys are obviously better and faster and more skilled," Winslow explains of NBA adjustments, "but there's just a lot more to process mentally. Game plans, schemes, personnel. It's just a lot, mentally."
It was taxing physically, too. He says his body wore down with minor injuries as the year unfolded, and laments that he wasn't able to put in extra work throughout the season the way his teammate Josh Richardson did before breaking out down the stretch. It’s pretty impressive that Winslow played almost 30 minutes per game—more than Kristaps Porzingis, Devin Booker or D'Angelo Russell, and he did it on a playoff team. But Winslow also averaged just 6.4 points. He shot 27% from three, and 68% from the line.
There are two ways to look at those numbers. You may see a player who's clearly a long way from being a superstar, but there's also player who's so good at everything else that it didn't matter if he was shooting 27% from three. In any case, it was all part of the story in that first year.
Wade helped along the way. Winslow saw him his as mentor not just for his game, but his career, on and off the floor. Of course, specific lessons took various forms as the season unfolded. "There were times he pulled me aside, but it wasn't always positive," Winslow remembers with a smirk. "A lot of times he was cussing me out."
Winslow had been doing his best to avoid the news during free agency, but social media made it impossible. When Wade finally left, he found out via notification on his phone. He was having dinner with teammates at Orlando Summer League. "We just didn't know how to react, really," he says.
"No one thought that was going to happen," he adds, "but it happened, so... I was just reflecting."
Meanwhile, he's stayed in touch with Bosh, but they don't talk basketball. "With Chris," he says, "We all of course wanted him back. But we wanted him healthy for his family first. The times Chris would reach out to me or I'd reach out to him, we didn't really talk about the Heat. It was just friends checking in on each other, asking how the family was. We just wanted him to be healthy."
Both Bosh and Wade cut ties with Heat management in caustic, very public fashion. Winslow is smart, so he's careful when he discusses this. "It's a business," he explains. "Both scenarios are different. Chris's situation is really unique, and doesn't happen too often. You can understand where both parties are coming from. He wants to play, and the Heat want him healthy. It's a tough situation. But then, Dwyane, it shows you the business side of things. And how that can unfold."
I wonder if he stills feels like the youngest player on the team after the past year. "I've grown up a lot," he says. "When it's time to be serious on the court or business off the court, I understand the time and place." And then a smile. "But trust me, I don't want to be any older. I love being 20."
If he's jaded, it never shows. He's just clear-eyed about exactly what happened and why. "I wasn't disappointed," he says of Wade's decision. "It hurts, because you built an emotional bond. But I wasn't disappointed."
And the first–year memories will be there regardless. "Those guys have so many stories," he says. "They've seen everything possible in the NBA. You have a guy like Amar’e who was in the MVP race that year in New York, had those great years in Phoenix, Joe Johnson and his playoff battles against the Heat, D-Wade and his championships. The locker room stories they would tell, stories about Shaq. Birdman had a bunch of ridiculous stories. It was cool, as a rookie. You hear all these stories, and then you want to create 'em yourself."
Udonis Haslem has been in Miami for everything. He played with Alonzo Mourning, Brian Grant, and Lamar Odom. He won titles with Shaq, and then he won titles with Wade and LeBron. When it's time to talk about Winslow and what he might mean to this team down the line, Haslem's not shy. "He's great," Haslem says. "We're going to need him to be a lot more vocal this year. We need him to be a leader on the floor. It can't be Dwyane. It can't be myself. It's gonna have to be him."
Meanwhile, when we talk about life off the court, Winslow mentions cooking as one of the biggest adjustments. "I'm on breakfast," he says. "I got the eggs down, I have the bacon down now. But I'm working on pancakes, French toast. I'll usually just do oatmeal. But I gotta figure out the omelette. Something to take it to the next level."
This is official confirmation that yes, this year’s leader on the floor is still very much 20 years old. It’s also a good reminder of how bizarre basketball can get. Whether it’s fans or general managers or media, everyone around the NBA understands the value of potential now more than ever. So players like Winslow—or D'Angelo Russell in L.A., KAT in Minneosta, Porzingis in New York, Devin Booker in Phoenix, Ben Simmons in Philly—are looked to as franchise cornerstones before they can legally buy a beer.
As millions of basketball fans project rosters years into the future, placing wild expectations on young stars is part of watching the NBA today. It becomes its own subplot. How will they respond?
Winslow's had help. "I had family there all the time [last year]," he says. "So that helped with the sense of comfort. Now I have a friend that lives with me, a friend from Duke. We just moved, so we're trying to figure that out right now. I like Miami. I got away from that whole South Beach thing, get away from the distractions. I'm locked in."
He's still in touch with Coach K. "He'll hit me," Winslow says. "He'll hit me spontaneously throughout the season if he sees something, or just to check in on me. He's still around."
Among his teammates, in addition to Wade, he got close with Amar'e Stoudemire last year. Stoudemire told SI last year that Winslow was the only young player who was receptive to his lessons on the art world. That interest stuck with Winslow. "I'll do something for Art Basel for sure," he says, "I've gone to some galleries around my house. Amar’e was great. We'd hang out, go to dinner. See stuff on Instagram, and talk about it on the plane."
"But," Winslow adds, "I'm taking it slow as far as purchasing meaningful-slash-expensive items for the time being. Art's a tricky thing, you don't want to rush into it."
We talk about other rookie purchases, and Winslow says he kept it fairly conservative. "I didn't really have any crazy things," he says. "I got some jewelry, a nice watch. I got a nice car, puppies..."
Puppies. "Jefe and Noah," he explains. Two English bulldogs. "My family surprised me with Jefe the day before Christmas. After the game. I'm like, 'let's go do something, let's go get dinner.' They're like, 'No let's go back to the house to change.' And there's a puppy waiting there. And then later I was like, 'You know what? I want another one. I don't want him to be lonely.' And I got Noah."
They each lived with him individually for a month last year, but in year two he'll have full custody. "When I got back from training camp," he says, "that was actually the first time they were together. They're trying to figure out who runs the house. They just fight all day, and drool all day. It's a mess, it's like having two kids."
Almost every Winslow conversation starts with the jumper, so we should probably address the jumper. In any given year there are probably 30 NBA players who could change their entire career with an improved jump shot. But of those 30, even with a jumper, only two or three have a chance to be as dominant as Winslow. "I was looking forward to coming back from Europe to see how he was doing," Dragic says. "He improved a lot. He improved his shot. His leadership, handling the ball, he's making great decisions on the court. I feel like we're going to see a different Justise Winslow this year."
Winslow spent the summer working out in Houston, often going back to the gym to get shots up after midnight. He went to Vegas to train with Team USA, where he watched Klay Thompson shoot the ball with the exact same mechanics, every time. He worked with a trainer on his posture, because he was top-heavy last year. Then he moved to shooting free throws, the midrange, and threes. "Building everything from the ground up," he says. "Like any structure."
"The majority of it is mental," Winslow explains of the jumper progress. "It's just about confidence. Knowing it's going in before you get the ball, before you shoot it. It's not arrogance, but you're super confident in your ability. You've put in the work, you've put in the hours."
Coaches have already promised a "major difference" in Winslow's shooting, although when I ask Spoelstra about the shooting, he does his best to manage expectations. "I don't want to limit his progress to that," Spoelstra says. "I think there's too much of a focus on his perimeter shooting. He's put in an unbelievable amount of time this summer, but that doesn't define what kind of player he is. I know the hours that he's put in. But it's all those other plays. He'll find a way to impact winning on both sides of the floor."
Speaking of winning—and managing expectations—the Heat are one of the few teams around the league that are legitimately impossible to predict this year. Given the losses this summer and the draft this June, nobody would blame them if they take a year to bottom out and reload. Given the lack of draft picks down the line—the 2018 and 2020 first rounders go to Phoenix—tanking may even be wise.
But there's also more talent than it seems. With Spoelstra coaching, the culture and identity is already more coherent than teams like the Knicks or Bulls. Whiteside should put up monstrous numbers. Dragic could look better now that he's not splitting touches with Wade. Then there's Winslow, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson buzzing around the perimeter, and Dion Waiters (for real) off the bench. If you're looking for a candidate to be last year's Blazers, this year's Heat might fit the bill better than anyone.
As Winslow puts it, "Honestly, we have totally different expectations than the media or even the fans. We feel like we can win now, kinda go under the radar. It just depends how quickly we can put all this together. But we have a super versatile group, and a super young group. The offense will come with time. But we got a lot of competitors, a lot of dogs."
Whether the Heat make the playoffs or not, what's fun about Winslow this year is how high the stakes are for everyone around him. With Whiteside and Dragic in their prime, the future of this nucleus depends on how quickly Winslow can add his own offense to the mix. If it looks like it's going to be a few more years, the Heat may look to rebuild.
That option wouldn't be the end of the world. This year's draft is deep. And even without refined offense, Winslow’s already good enough at everything else to make him an excellent building block down the line. Every team has a place for a basketball linebacker.
But watch Miami this year, and you might see flashes of something better. He's running pick-and-rolls, he's taking hand-offs and dishing in the lane, he's spotting up, plus all the usual mayhem on defense. He has moments where he looks like a Westbrook-flavored Kawhi. You see why everyone's interested in taking him under their wing.
Speaking of which, early in the third quarter, the Heat offense stalls. Udonis Haslem rises at the end of the bench and calls Justise over from midcourt to the baseline to lecture him about ball movement, calling out Whiteside for screens, and getting in the lane.
"It takes guys like myself," Haslem explains afterward. "To just keep pushing, pushing, pushing. Give him those jewels. And he's very receptive, so that's not going to be a problem."