Sports

Justise Winslow Is Ahead Of The Curve

After a productive rookie season as a teenager, Justise Winslow is ready to get to work on some very ambitious goals, on and off the basketball court.

by Jonny Auping
Jul 18 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The fifth and sixth graders at the first annual, free-of-charge Justise Winslow Invitational Clinic in Houston should not have signed up if they expected the weekend's emphasis to be on scoring. Letting those kids get easy buckets really wouldn't have done the camp's name—and I apologize for how this sentence is going to end—any justice.

"When I'm out on the court, regardless of who I'm playing, I go hard," Winslow told me on the first morning of camp, standing about 30 feet below the only retired jersey in the gym, which is his. "If it's a top-100 player, an All-Star in the NBA, or maybe one of these kids this weekend, I'm going to give them my all defensively."

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The 50 children that were gathered in the St. John's gym where Winslow played his high school basketball games saw two sides of Winslow, who was the tenth pick of the 2015 NBA Draft and a contributor to a solid Miami Heat team as a 19-year-old rookie. On one hand, they got small glimpses of the intensity that anyone who's ever tried to score on him is familiar with. Every so often, Winslow would slap both hands on the court and the campers would dutifully respond with screams of "I LOVE DEFENSE!"

On the other hand, throw the 20-year old in a room full of kids, and the record shows that it's impossible to keep him from dancing. "When me and Justise are together we're always making dance videos," says his older sister Bianca, who helped coach the camp. At the start of this year's playoffs, the Heat uploaded a video of Justice and Bianca doing the "Running Man Challenge" in what might have seemed like a spontaneous gag. "It literally took us an hour to get that one video," Bianca admitted. "We kept doing it and redoing it. We practiced."

Winslow isn't the first professional athlete to surround himself with a tight circle of family and friends, but the Winslow team is far from a collection of hangers-on. The reason Winslow was standing in that St. John's gym on a weekend in late June had everything to do with his mother.

Robin Davis started the nonprofit Robin's House so that Justise and his three siblings, or any of their friends, would have an umbrella organization for whatever charitable work they wanted to accomplish. When Davis tells her son to be somewhere for a Robin's House event, the obligation is as mandatory as a Heat shootaround or Adidas photo shoot.

High-percentage imo. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Davis is also the reason that Winslow stepped foot in St. John's for the first time almost a decade ago. Winslow enrolled in the small private school in sixth grade. When college basketball became a realistic goal, Davis resisted moving him to one of Houston's basketball powerhouses. "Education first," Davis said emphatically. "I always tell my kids that basketball or whatever sport they play is going to take care of itself, as long as they have a good education."

Three of St. John's six league championships were won in Winslow's four years on the basketball team, and his obvious talent ensured that exposure was not an issue. Winslow went on to Duke, where he was the motor for their 2015 National Championship team before declaring for the NBA Draft.

Nine teams passed on Winslow in the 2015 NBA Draft—although Boston reportedly offered Charlotte four first round picks in order to move up and select Winslow with the ninth selection. The Hornets rejected the offer in order to take Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky, and Miami jumped at the opportunity to draft Winslow with the next pick. As the Heat's Big Three scatters and fades—with Dwyane Wade in Chicago and Chris Bosh potentially forced into an early retirement due to heath issues—Winslow has emerged as a cornerstone of whatever comes next in Miami.

"I'm not ready to clip your wings," Davis told Winslow a full year into his NBA career. After meeting the list of potential mentors in Miami looking out for her son, however, she says she's almost ready to start thinking about it. "One is already clipped."

Veteran NBA players tend to be more willing to impart their years of wisdom to rookies inclined to listen. Winslow fit that bill, and he credits players like Luol Deng, Wade, Josh McRoberts, and especially Bosh with expediting his NBA readiness. "There were little things that [Bosh] would just see, or that I was this close to understanding something or getting some concept down and he'd really just help me out throughout the whole season. Our locker is right next to each other so it was just constant, every day."

Soaking in their knowledge is one thing, but taking their minutes is another. Only eventual Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns played more regular season minutes among first-year players than Winslow. "We're not playing him just to develop him," Erik Spoelstra told Sports Illustrated in December. "That's happening as a byproduct of him playing. We're not a give-minutes-to-young-players organization at the expense of winning." Winslow played big minutes as a 19-year-old rookie because one of the most respected organizations in the NBA thought he should. That is what he's building on as he prepares for a bigger role in his second season.

Efficient, is what it is. Photo by Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

When an NBA team drafts a 19-year old they're investing in the player he'll eventually become, but Winslow refused to be considered a liability for an eventual playoff team. "I didn't want to be a guy where coaches were saying 'give him two years to develop,'" Winslow said. "I wanted to go through it and learn on the fly."

Winslow's name is the main draw for anything organized by Robin's House, especially the basketball camp, but as the face of the event he put his support group to work for the weekend. Family, friends, former coaches, teammates, and trainers all volunteered to do the lion's share of the real work, running kids through various drills and demonstrations while Winslow wandered from station to station, offering thumbnail coaching, high-fiving kids who were getting it right, or gently critiquing campers' technique.

With every volunteer preoccupied and his mother distracted, Winslow took an opportunity to sneak over to the turntables and give the hired DJ a break. By the time he had a couple transitions under his belt his giddiness might have been more unabashed than the campers who met him for the first time. It was almost an hour before he could be dragged back to the action.

A lot of athletes are interested in the arts. Many claim to have A Passion for music, art, or film, and almost as many actually do. Where it gets complicated, for these habitual winners, is when they start expecting their competitiveness to seamlessly apply to non-basketball endeavors. Winslow, as it happens, just has what he calls an appreciation for all of the above. "In college, I started hanging out with a lot of creative people as far as art and music," he said. "I kind of found a respect and appreciation for other people's extracurricular activities or things they do for fun."

Next generation. Photo courtesy of Aaron M. Sprecher

Robin's House is taking things one event at a time, but Winslow and his mother have a grand vision in mind: an all-male boarding school for the arts, where children can be given the chance to find and develop creative outlets. "We try to gear our foundation around the end goal of having that boarding school," Winslow's older brother, Brandon, said.

"I like to see the process rather than the product," Winslow said. "I like to see people working on a painting or working on a movie rather than watching the finished product. Just watching that process, to me, is more fulfilling than the result."

It might be a stretch to call Winslow's defense an art form—at this point in his career, it's the larger part of his day job—but his process-oriented approach may have something to do with what makes him so effective on that end of the floor. In his first year in the NBA, Winslow was trusted to guard players like Kevin Durant, Lebron James, and James Harden. In Miami's second-round playoff series against Toronto, the Heat successfully started the 6-foot-6 Winslow at center.

"Defense has always been something that's been instilled in me," he said. "Being the youngest in my family I wasn't always able to score on my siblings." ("I don't think he can beat me now," said Bianca, who played at the University of Houston.) He learned about aggression and how to frustrate opponents.

But his defense is about more than just the fact that he has size, strength, and physical intensity reminiscent of Ron Artest. Winslow is miles ahead of his age in terms of understanding and executing the minutia of team defense. Properly switching against a pick-and-roll. Face-guarding DeMar DeRozan. Denying Dirk Nowitzki an entry pass in the post. Boxing out Bismack Biyombo instead of guessing where a rebound might go. These are things that about half of the players in the NBA will go their entire careers without fully grasping or embracing. Winslow comprehends them right now, in a startlingly refined way.

"I'm always trying to learn," he said. "In the NBA, everyone's good, so it comes down to the mental side of things, who understands schemes and techniques." You know, the process.

Got to drill down on the long twos. Photo by Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

It's not farfetched to say that Winslow was the most defensively prepared rookie since Hall of Fame center David Robinson. At 20, he's got the defensive chops to become a Kawhi Leonard-type stopper. He also has the versatility to slide into multiple roles like Andre Iguodala or Draymond Green.

These are heady comparisons, and maybe unfair. But there's a reason Heat fans can't wait to see what kind of value Winslow will have if he can turn his three-point shot into a strength. He shot under 28 percent from behind the arc in his rookie season. "It's one of those things that I already know," he said, surely not for the first time. "I try not to focus on one thing, but obviously that's something I need to work on." To be fair, at 19 years old his three-point shot wasn't any worse than Leonard's was as a sophomore at San Diego State. Last season, Leonard shot over 44 percent from three for the San Antonio Spurs.

Winslow will play whatever role is asked of him, but he wasn't shy about expressing that he expects that role to continue to grow. "I want to be an All-Star," he said. "I want to be an MVP candidate-type player. There's just a lot of work that goes into that and understanding that it's going to be a process. It's going to be a little progress at a time, and sometimes big leaps."

It doesn't take two days around Winslow to realize he's more mature than most 20-year olds, physically and mentally. He's more patient, and more well-rounded, on and off the court. He's well-supported and ambitious. There isn't a lot standing in the way of Winslow becoming dominant force in the NBA. The past five Finals MVPs have either been LeBron James or someone remotely effective in containing LeBron James. Winslow will never be the former, but he's already open to the challenge of the latter.

A day of camp had just wrapped up and Winslow sat on the sideline of the court that had been an enormous part of his past. I asked him about his future. "I think I have the people around me where I can reach that level of player that can lead a team to a Finals."

A few feet away his mom was talking to some campers' parents. His brother, sister, and hometown friends were goofing around as they slowly cleaned up the gym. Everyone was wearing "Justise Winslow Invitational Clinic" t-shirts. Winslow seems to be right about the people around him. It will take a few years to determine the rest.

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