If you’re going to use just one word to describe NBA draft lottery hopeful Justise Winslow, that word pretty much has to be versatile.
Case in point: The former Duke Blue Devil likens his game to that of current NBA players Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. Leonard, a small forward, is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Harden, a shooting guard, was fourth in the NBA in scoring and the MVP runner up this past season.
“In terms of Kawhi, he’s a great defender in the way he uses his length, his hands and his physicality and he’s evolved as a player on the offensive side of the court. You saw what he was able to do guarding LeBron [in the 2014 NBA Finals] and this year he was a great contributor to what the Spurs were doing on the offensive end,” Winslow told SI.com on Monday while preparing for Thursday’s draft with grooming and style advice from AXE. “With James, it’s the way we attack the basket; both being left handed, we both use the Eurostep and angle different ways to draw fouls and complete plays.”
At this point, Winslow compares more closely to Leonard than to Harden. Winslow's defensive prowess, high basketball IQ and toughness are his claims to what will likely be a top-10 selection in Thursday’s draft. These attributes are his reward for years of having to play and defend multiple positions.
“It’s been that way since early in my high school career. I didn’t go to one of those high schools with a bunch of McDonald's All Americans. I found myself having to guard the best player on the other team, regardless of if they were 6'8" or the point guard,” Winslow says of his time at St. John’s High School in Houston. “I’ve played almost everywhere in my life. In AAU and in my first year in high school, I was a point guard. In fifth grade I was a power forward. Now, shooting guard, small forward, it doesn’t really matter to me.”
Winslow has played a lot of basketball to get to this point. His body is as versatile as his game, a product of not only how hard he has worked, but also of how smart he has worked. During middle and high school, his workouts were focused on repetitions instead of weight. Today, Winslow says that keeping his technique fundamentally sound and building a strong base of muscle has been the secret to his development.
“Early on, I was asked to do a lot for my teams. In high school, I built a foundation of strength and muscle not by lifting the heaviest weights, but by focusing on doing more reps at lighter weights. It’s about how strong I am as opposed to how big I look,” Winslow says. “I’m always in the gym trying to get better, but there is no specific workout that I do that adds any element of versatility to my game. When I’m in the weight room, I pay attention to my technique and when I’m doing conditioning sprints, push myself as hard as I can to teach my muscles how far they can go.”
Winslow spends eight to nine hours a week in the weight room. His bench press maxes out at around four reps of 205 pounds today, but he varies the weight between 185-205 at different reps depending on what he is working on. He also puts an emphasis on core, hip mobility and rotation, yoga, and deep-tissue massages to keep his muscles flexible and lean, but powerful and strong.
“It’s a lot more than just being in the gym shooting,” Winslow says.
Maybe, but he’s done a lot of that as well. Last year at Duke, Winslow shot the ball better and more consistently than at any point in his young career. He hit 41.6% from behind the arc, upping that to 57.1 during the championship run. Overall though, his shooting deficiency, most notably his pull up jumper and foul shooting, is probably the biggest difference between him, Leonard and Harden.
“I’m trying to improve in all elements. I’ve been focusing a lot recently on finishing with my weak hand [his right] and my mid-range in-between game,” Winslow says. “A lot of that is repetition. Teaching your body the right mechanics and getting the correct number of reps with that proper technique.”
Winslow says that he doesn’t feel more comfortable guarding forwards as opposed to guards; he defends the player, not the position. He doesn’t like to categorize himself within a certain player position. In his formative years, Winslow was versatile out of necessity; today, because of those experiences, he has the old school “I’m a basketball player” mindset. It has served him well at every stop he has made so far, but he knows that change is likely coming at the next level.
“I’m sure at the next level I’ll have a more concentrated position,” Winslow says. “The bottom line is that I have to find a way to get the job done, wherever I am.”
The NBA draft is Thursday evening. Winslow said he is excited for the moment he makes it on stage to shake NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand with a destination finally in his.
“I grew up in Houston, a Rockets fan obviously,” Winslow says. “But no matter where I go, it’ll be a blessing. I can’t wait to find out.”
A player who combines some of Kawhi Leonard's and Harden’s greatest attributes would almost assuredly be a slam-dunk lottery pick. Winslow isn’t currently on the level that Harden (or Leonard, take your pick) would be. Yet when you hear Winslow explain his comparison, you realize that the he wasn’t being overconfident. It's Winslow's genuine aspiration to become Defensive Player of the Year or vying for the title of Most Valuable Player in the NBA. Such lofty goals aren’t reached anywhere but on the court and in the gym, and Winslow has put in his time in both places.