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  • Jorge Cantu

Can Justise Winslow Take the Next Step?

Photo courtesy of Issac Baldizone/NBAE via GettyImages

This upcoming 2018-19 campaign will be a critical year for Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow. After seeing his playing time reduced this past season, as well as facing a slight role change, Winslow heads into a contract year uncertain about his future with the South Beach franchise.

After a somewhat successful start to the 2016-17 season, and amid an already troubling injury situation with his left wrist, Winslow suffered a season-ending right shoulder injury; he was diagnosed with a torn labrum right after the 2017 calendar year started. In 18 appearances before sitting out for good, Winslow had averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.4 steals on 34.7 minutes per game on some ugly shooting percentages of 35.6% from the field and 20% from three-point range. The most surprising part is, even on terrible efficiency, Winslow was still a solid, positive contributor with a high defensive upside for the Heat in that span.

Last season, he played 68 regular season games and averaged 7.8 points, 5.4 boards, and 2.2 assists on 42.4% shooting from the field and 38.0% from long range; these are certainly not eye-popping numbers, but represent an improvement from a much more inefficient Winslow as his minutes dropped down to 24.7 per game. What can the young forward do this year to continue improving, earn more minutes in coach Spo’s rotation, and secure a long-term contract by the start of the 2019-20 season?

First, it is important to point out a big change Winslow faced this season. He actually played 60% of his minutes at power forward, while spending the remaining 40% at small forward. There are several reasons why this happened. For one, the Heat roster was full of good and great backcourt players; Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, and Dwyane Wade (after the trade deadline) were all deserving of minutes and a rotation spot, which forced some of them to play as small forwards, along two fellow guards, and slid Winslow to the other forward spot. Also, Spoelstra toyed with different lineups throughout the season and tried out some previously unseen player combinations in small-ball units. To his credit, they showed overall positive results.

Perhaps playing more as a power forward than as a small forward is not as drastic of a change as it would have been ten years ago, when a lot of power forwards were still big men who prowled around the paint and easily exploited size mismatches. Winslow is 6-foot-7, fairly undersized compared to traditional power forwards, but it is fair to say this unapparent position shift probably had some impact on his numbers.

Photo courtesy of Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

Winslow’s biggest positive is his defense. Out of all players who appeared in at least 15 games last season and logged at least 10 minutes per game, Winslow ranked around the 90th percentile on individual defensive rating (102.1), which is quite solid; there is not much else to say about how high his ceiling as a defender is. While he is still learning how to play defense as a stretch four, his perimeter and one-on-one defensive skills are impressive. In this clip, look at how Winslow contains C.J. McCollum all the way through his isolation attempt and eventually picks his pocket:

Even when he had a positive net rating (+1.6), his individual offensive rating (103.7) was still around the 18th percentile mark (hint: that is terrible). But I believe he can have much more of an impact if he is put in the right situations. If I were coach Spoelstra, I would put the ball in his hands more often – more on this in a second – as I found it pretty interesting how Winslow could be a great fit both as an on and off-ball player. His on-ball upside is interesting, but let me show what he can do as an off-ball player first.

Winslow’s off-ball role is usually limited to standing on the wing or corner and waiting for his defender to play help defense so he can get an open shot. 70 out of his 129 three-point attempts this season were corner threes, which he made at a 40% clip. Overall, Winslow shot 38.1% from downtown, a huge improvement from his 27.7% and 20% success rates the previous two seasons. Also, 27 % of his total field goals were catch-and-shoot threes, and all 49 of his made three-pointers were assisted, examples of how this season he more often benefited from others rather than from creating offense on his own, which he has the potential to do.

As long as Winslow can keep his three-point numbers at that mark on slightly increased volume, he will start to earn a better reputation and become one of the top 3-and-D players in the league; the Rockets proved last year how there is no such thing as having surplus 3-and-D guys on your team. Those are arguably the most coveted and valuable type of role players in today’s game, so he can guarantee himself several NBA contracts as long as he can sustain this deep range accuracy and continue being a good defender.

But it is his on-ball offensive potential that has me most excited, because he has proven to be a very solid option when thrust into said role. On offense, Winslow has a smooth touch around the rim and is usually at his best when he is driving to the basket. He shot 56.4% at the rim; that is not an elite mark, but it is OK and still gives the Heat some hope Winslow will make progress. He needs to make sure he spends more time near the basket, as he only drove 4.6 times per game last season. As an example of how relentless Winslow is when driving to the basket, look at how he looks to make contact with the defender and smartly uses his body to get his shot up and in:

Winslow’s playmaking abilities are nothing to be genuinely surprised about, but he is on the right path considering his lack of experience in distributing situations. He generated 5.2 points per game with his assists last season, and he at times even used his driving abilities to draw an extra defender into the lane and open up space for his teammates:

Now I want you to take a close look at this play:

This was basically a combination of what I just spoke about; Winslow driving to the basket, drawing extra defense, and finding an open space for his teammate to score. That was not really an easy pass, and Winslow can also use these types of simple pick-and-rolls to get a bucket by himself:

This is the one aspect that should take his game to the next level: working as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets. In 85 possessions as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll actions last season, Winslow scored 77 points. That is equivalent to 0.91 points per possession, right at the 75.5% percentile mark. If you ask me, that looks pretty good for a player whose job is not handling the ball on these situations. Winslow shot 49.2% on pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler, had an 18.8% free throw attempt rate, and a 45.9% score frequency, with the latter two values being team-highs.

As much as Winslow should be responsible to put himself in favorable situations in which he can showcase his biggest strengths, it will also depend on how much Erik Spoelstra and the team’s coaching staff trust him. At the end of the day, Winslow is almost forced to change and adjust his style of play on the fly, depending on who he is playing with during a certain period of time.

The Miami Heat front office has three options at this time. The first one is signing Winslow to an extension before the regular season starts, something that appears very unlikely as of now. The next one is waiting for Winslow to hit restricted free agency and try to re-sign him, which also involves the risk of losing him for nothing if another team signs him to an expensive enough offer sheet. And finally, they can expect Winslow to play really well during the first couple of months of the season and trade him at the deadline.

With all the financial issues the Heat are facing, Winslow returning to the team looks like a stretch. If he plays well enough, Pat Riley would probably not hesitate to trade him along with a bad contract and kill two birds with one stone. There are a bunch of possibilities, and the better Winslow plays, the harder it will get for Miami to decide if he is worth a big contract or not.

All data and statistics obtained from NBA Stats and Basketball Reference.

You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA

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