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Kyrie Irving's Future May Hinge on Justise Winslow's Potential

With Kyrie Irving rumors floating around the league, young studs like Winslow are forcing teams to weigh potential against production.
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We're smack dab in the middle of the NBA's annual dead zone. Just about every relevant free agent has found a home and a majority of teams are ready to hit training camp with a full roster. But Kyrie Irving's unresolved trade demand still hovers over the entire league. A deal involving Irving could be more consequential than any transaction we've seen since the Finals ended.

Irving is only 25 years old, with two years and a player option left on his contract. No player's individual bag of tricks is more bottomless than Irving's. He has an answer for every defensive assignment, with peerless handles and a deadly pull-up shot, crossed with the deconstructive focus of a bomb disposal expert when finishing at the rim.


The phrase "no man steps in the same river twice" is apt when watching Irving play basketball. He bombards opponents with an assiduous fluidity that makes him one of the most aesthetically pleasing athletes in the world; the fact that he no longer wants to play beside the second-best player ever, on the NBA's second-best team, has induced league-wide convulsions.

Several variables make predicting the results of any trade that hasn't even happened yet impossible. But it's hard to see how the Cleveland Cavaliers can increase (or even maintain) their postseason potency without Irving on their roster. Of course, that doesn't mean intriguing proposals from rival teams won't flow.

Last week, the Miami Heat reportedly offered Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow for the four-time All-Star. Dragic, as the singular locomotive who could ostensibly replace Irving's gravity and flair, while Winslow exists as the blue-chip wing prospect who makes downgrading from Irving to Dragic (who's 31 years old) worthwhile.

The Heat denied everything, but this rumor still brings up a question that the Cavaliers and Heat are forced to confront: Can Winslow be a star? Is he destined to become a left-handed Jimmy Butler: the swift, switch-happy brute who excels on the defensive end while also being able to carry a pretty good offense on his shoulders? Or is he the next Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: an ox-strong defender who rebounds, finishes in transition, but can't overcome his shooting woes?


It's impossible to know the answer right now, though the Heat can't guarantee Winslow will even start on the opening night of his third season. Regardless, he remains Miami's single biggest reason for optimism, both as a trade chip and possible franchise player. Here's what we do know: Coming off an injury-plagued campaign in which he only appeared in 18 games, Winslow's trade value is approximately 8,000 times lower than it was 12 months ago. A variety of factors—a few being out of his control—led to a sophomore slump, but some of his weaknesses shouldn't be taken lightly, either.

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Last year, Winslow became the ninth player in league history to register a sub-.400 True Shooting percentage while using at least 19 percent of his team's possessions (minimum 500 minutes). That's a brutal stat. The percentage of his field goal attempts that were behind the three-point line dropped by 10 points, too. The sample size here is low, and even though most of Winslow's misses weren't even close to going in (a mild concern, to say the least), his technique wasn't atrocious and he still shot 41.8 percent from downtown in college.

"A guy like him, he can get to the rim whenever he wants and get in the paint whenever he wants," Heat teammate Wayne Ellington told VICE Sports. "He doesn't even need to worry about [outside shooting] right now, but I feel like once he locks in on that area it'll become easy for him."


There's some validity here, but a lost season is a lost season, and wings who can't space the floor limit the ways in which their teammates can prosper. Last year, Miami's offense scored at about a league average rate when Winslow didn't play. When he was on the court they were one of the worst attacks in the league.

To be fair, in addition to the limited sample size, Winslow also missed 16 games with a wrist injury suffered in November, an ailment so painful he slept with a brace and couldn't eat with his left hand. Winslow wasn't exactly a dead-eye sniper before that, but having a healthy hand is sort of important if you want to create any sort of rhythm and consistency with your jump shot.

He struggled to finish at the rim, didn't draw fouls, and, even though he proved capable of creating space in the mid-range, wasn't able to knock those shots down either. Some of his struggles were due to a dramatic reduction in surrounding guidance (Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, and Luol Deng all left) and some of it can be explained by Miami having worse injury luck than anybody else.

At 21, in just his second year, Winslow's responsibilities mushroomed in a way most prospects that age aren't ready for. A measly seven percent of his possessions ended as a pick-and-roll ball-handler when Winslow was a rookie. That number more than tripled last season, according to Synergy Sports. And while solving this initial attack was no Rubik's cube (big men simply sagged back to goad a jumper), Winslow's instinctual vision made placing him in these situations look genius.


"We want to develop him in all the versatile ways that are his strengths, and that's when he's at his best, when you use him in a lot of different areas," Spoelstra said before Winslow's final game of the regular season. "Handling the ball, making decisions, playing on the baseline, playing as a cutter, as a screener, and defensively we've asked him to guard one through four pretty much on a nightly basis."

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He fit right into Miami's whirling drive-and-kick offense as yet another initiator (alongside Dion Waiters, Dragic, James Johnson, etc.) who could grab a defensive rebound and go. His assist percentage doubled and his turnover rate dropped. Winslow knifed his way through the opponent's first line and found open shooters peppered beyond the arc, with next-level skip passes and lobs that second-year forwards don't make. It all looked so futuristic.

Distributing out of the pick-and-roll he ranked in the 89th percentile, per Synergy Sports. And among all players who finished at least 50 of these possessions, Winslow ranked sixth in the entire league.

"Justise means a lot," Ellington said. "He's a professional. He's a high IQ player, smart player…He's one of those guys, we like to call him Swiss Army Knife. He's got a lot of things he can do that a lot of guys can't."

Winslow's results when attempting to put the ball in the basket himself were in the toilet, but elsewhere he performed beyond his years, with decisive movement that was preceded by unwavering confidence. His first step snapped like a rattlesnake's tongue, and his ability to defend multiple positions was invaluable for a team that feasted after stops. Miami's defense was noticeably more cohesive with Winslow on the court, the unusual prospect who entered the league already understanding more elaborate schemes at the professional level.

He could switch screens, handle larger bodies in the post, rebound, and attack in transition. It's a rare skill-set for any player, and even if his lacking outside shot lingers as a serious dilemma, the baseline of a useful tool is already here.

It all makes Winslow an intriguing youngster with high upside, unteachable qualities, and a career worth seeing through. It's hard to say if moving him for Irving is a wise long-term move, though it's unlikely the Cavaliers would have much interest in acquiring a piece who only complements LeBron James on one side of the ball.

When considering a trade for someone who's volatile enough to either become a perennial All-Star or a peculiar role player, everyone involved must deal with a level of uncertainty that should make them quite uncomfortable. Winslow remains a tantalizing mystery box.