Rookies Deconstructed: Justise Winslow
The first in a new series breaking down the antecedents and secret skills of the NBA's exceptional rookie class. First up: ultra-athletic Miami wing Justise Winslow.
Illustration by Elliot Gerard
This season's rookie class could be something special. There is talent and depth, size and skill, and the promise that there could be a few transcendent players in the mix. Oddly, though, some elements of each player's game and physical presentation feel familiar. Rookies Deconstructed is a series that means to take each rookie apart, identifying the building blocks we know and the natural comparisons that emerge and appreciating how they come together in ways that are radically and invigoratingly new. Because these are rookies, with just under half a season under the belts, some comparisons are necessarily forward-looking.
Ron Artest And The Deep Knee Bend
Back when Ron Artest was still Ron Artest, and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, he had one of the lowest defensive stances in the league. Legs wide, knees bent deeply, the relative height of his stance signaled his level of commitment on each possession. The deeper that bend went, the more his shorts revealed his granitic quads. If it wasn't intended to intimidate, it wound up accomplishing that goal anyway.
Every coach, from the YMCA to the NBA teaches and expects his defenders to play from that stance when facing an opposing ball-handler. It's a position of defensive strength, balanced and engaged. It's also hard as hell on the muscles to require such a sustained flex; the ability to maintain it is a badge of intensity. Artest wore it proudly, often waving it in your face as a bit of psychological warfare. Already, we've seen enough of Justise Winslow's thighs to know what sort of defender he's going to be.
There are numerous other aesthetic similarities between Winslow and Artest—the strong frame, the broad shoulders, that thing where they doggedly refuse to respect the personal space of an opposing player, whether he has the ball or not. Even their stride and posture look like variations on a rugged theme. But the subtle differences are what make the similarities so striking. Artest's intensity was fueled by a raging internal sea; even in those moments of calm, where he would tug up his shorts and sink into his stance to size up a defensive challenge, an explosion was always just a few ticks away. Where Artest's intensity was hot, Winslow's is cold. His calm is not a functional facade, it's his natural order of things.
Winslow is not yet the world-class defender that Artest was, but that defensive stance says he could be, even as his face says nothing.
Jamal Mashburn And The Big Guard Legacy
There have been precious few opportunities to really watch Winslow work on offense this season. His usage rate is microscopic and he has often been relegated to standing in the corner watching Goran Dragic or Dwyane Wade run high pick-and-rolls with Hassan Whiteside or Chris Bosh. Even in transition, where he's readiest to do damage, Winslow has mostly been limited to background emoting on the poster dunks of his teammates.
But, even in these limited opportunities, we can see traces of the offensive player he could become. He shoots three-pointers confidently, if not yet well. Winslow is similarly confident (and much more effective) with the ball in his hands, finding seams for passes or drives in the pick-and-roll, using strength and broad shoulders to make sure those seams stay open long enough for him to work his way through. His mid-range jumpers have been falling and he's springy around the rim, although the touch and creativity of scoring efficiently in-between those two areas hasn't materialized yet.
Take those small moments of offensive activity and imagine them expanded and augmented by experience, add a large pinch of optimism, and we have peak-era Jamal Mashburn. In 2002-03, Mashburn averaged 21.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game. He made 38.9 percent of his three-pointers and punished opponents in the post with an expansive collection of refined drop-steps, turn-arounds, flip-shots, and step-throughs. Mash slipped easily from de-facto point guard to de-facto power forward, often in a single possession. If you took Winslow as he is now, and projected a future that is both wildly successful and thoroughly realistic, Mashburn is the template.
Winslow has a good deal of the template checked off already. Handle and vision. Strength and quickness. Pull-up jumpers and body control. The three-point shot is very much a work in progress and the post game will take reps. This complicates the timetable, as those reps are going to be far and few between as long as Wade, Bosh, and Whiteside are already taking turns working in that real estate. Still, the seeds of a Mashburn revival are there. With time, experience, patience, and judicious amounts of Gatorade, they will bloom.
Caron Butler And Utility
Caron Butler began his career with the Heat, as Winslow has. It was a very different Heat team, though—Butler spent his rookie season alongside the likes of Mike James, Travis Best, Brian Grant, and Malik Allen on a tattered and eroded roster. He scored and defended, handled the ball, and provided an emotional center for the team; they weren't good, but they were better.
Then Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem were drafted, Eddie Jones got healthy, and Lamar Odom was signed as a free agent. All of a sudden Miami didn't really need his scoring or his ball handling or emotional leadership, at least not in the starved and desperate way they did the year before. Butler took it all in stride, deferred to the new talent, and focused on defense and brewing endless batches of Tuff Juice. A year later he was gone, on his way to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of the ransom paid for Shaquille O'Neal.
Winslow was a star last season, albeit of the student-athlete kind, and he helped lead Duke to a National Championship. He was drafted in the lottery and plays on the perimeter. Those elements usually earn (rightly or wrongly) a young player a certain amount of offensive responsibility. Not so for Winslow. Thirteen other rookies are currently averaging more shots per game than he is, including T.J. McConnell, Raul Neto, and Larry Nance Jr. He's a complimentary player, and not even the complimentary player closest to the spotlight.
For a player who has likely been a star at every level, being assigned to the task of screen-setter, corner-stander, ball-mover, and perimeter impediment could be psychologically disruptive. Winslow, for his part, appears to be taking it as well as it could be taken—not as injury or insult, but simply as an opportunity to help his team in other ways and learn on the job. It's a sliver of symmetry—a narrow one, but symmetry still—to see Winslow deferring to Wade the same way Butler once did.
For all his generosity of spirit and redirected blood, sweat, and tears, Butler was used as bait to catch a bigger fish. Winslow's future is not yet written, but the Heat, as presently constructed, have a shelf life, and a relatively short one. When that next period of personnel transition comes, Winslow will certainly play a part, either as a foundational piece or a trading chip. It's hard not to hope that Winslow's determination, defense, and selfless attention to the anonymous, vital details gets him the opportunity he deserves.