Still several months away from the NBA season, there are few certainties regarding the new-look Miami Heat.
Outside Goran Dragic driving the Dwyane Wade-less offense and Hassan Whiteside inhaling shot attempts by the opposition, throw in another surety, one that exists under the team’s current roster construction: Justise Winslow is the key.
The offseason did not go as Pat Riley envisioned in the couple of years leading up to the Summer of 2016, years he spent dreaming of reeling in Kevin Durant to fill the gaping hole created by LeBron James‘ soul-stinging departure. A hole that has since been spewing fire since the Cavaliers’ shocked the basketball world by beating the greatest regular season team in league history for Cleveland’s first major sports title in like 300 years.
Whether Riley and the Heat truly wanted the 34-year-old Wade to return is irrelevant because the man who turns 35 in January, with his decaying defense and dwindling efficiency, wasn’t going to elevate them to another level.
Now Miami’s greatest hope of at least having a prayer to compete among the Eastern Conference behemoths — think Top 4 seed — correlates to the development from within, with the 20-year-old Winslow spearheading the Heat’s youth movement that includes Tyler Johnson (24) and Josh Richardson (22).
The reasoning is simple: we don’t know what Justise Winslow is yet and the roof, well, nobody has any clue how high it should be constructed.
We do know the former Dukie was a dynamic defensive force from Day 1, with his elite lateral agility and general excellent on-court savvy translating to his presence on 12 of Miami’s 13 best defensive lineups, per NBA.com.
When the Heat was clamping down, odds were strong No. 20 was on the court.
I’ll never forget how he approached defending LeBron in the second game of his prepubescent NBA career. LeBron dropped 29 points on 13-for-19 shooting but, man, Justise went full-throttle at the King during his 19 minutes of action, defending the world’s finest player like he’d done it for years — fearless with fundamental precision. Greatness happened to prevail because that’s what greatness does.
Just based off the defense alone we know Winslow’s floor is likely to be in the mold of a high-quality role player in the form of a Luol Deng or Shane Battier (though he’s probably more athletic than both ever were) — think the fourth or fifth best player on a contender. However, his offense is largely a question mark after an inconsistent rookie campaign in a limited role, thus making it difficult to project his potential.
The veil will start to shed this season, when Winslow no longer has to contend with Wade, Deng, and Joe Johnson for touches and he’ll often be the team’s No. 2 or No. 3 option to create offense.
There is reason for optimism his offensive game will take steps forward but some of it could hinge on Erik Spoelstra. With Chris Bosh’s career in doubt, Winslow would thrive with more minutes at the 4 (and even 5), as he did in the postseason after Whiteside went down. His rookie split shows 81 percent of his possessions at the 3 and 15 percent at the 4, per Basketball Reference. It would be mildly shocking if that didn’t get closer to evening out next season and it would be for the better.
The Heat will strive to push the ball in Wade’s absence in an effort to optimize an offense built around the penetration of Dragic. Winslow at the 4 makes too much sense. It would make things easier for him as he finds his identity offensively, where he’d be able to out-quick bigger bodies off the dribble and pressure the defense in the open court. Defensively, he’ll be more than capable of holding his own against bigs because of that “old-man strength” he routinely flashes similar to teammate Udonis Haslem. Winslow plays 20 pounds bigger than his listed weight of 225.
As a passer, Justise showed decent chops in Year 1 — reminder: he was 19 — clearly understanding the nuances of the game and positioning of his teammates. He may never offer the same dynamic playmaking of a Draymond Green but he’s no Michael Beasley. Regularly tallying 4-5 assists a game one day is not beyond feasibility considering his Basketball IQ and unselfish style.
As a “shooter,” those quotes are in there for a reason. He was extremely inefficient last year, posting a True Shooting Percentage of 49 percent, which didn’t rank among the Top 100 wings to qualify. He especially struggled from deep, hitting 28 percent on 3s, and wasn’t much better at the rim, where he converted 51 percent of his attempts, which was four points under the league average. He did not look comfortable finishing against NBA bigs but, again, he was a teenager until four months ago.
It’s not implausible to expect Winslow to make strides as a shooter after ramping up quality reps this summer with what appears to be a cleaner release. His form wasn’t disastrous but his footwork was choppy and his release was hitchy.
He did some some gains during his rookie year, with his percentage from behind the arc improving from 26 percent before the All-Star break to 33 percent the rest of the way. He also hit at a 42-percent clip in his one year of college.
If he can at least become a league-average 3-point-shooter ( around 35 %), he’ll no longer be an offensive liability, fast-tracking his development from merely a defensive menace to a core building block, opening up lanes to attack and cut through not only for himself but for his teammates.
Winslow is the Heat’s most intriguing piece because he has both the mental and physical tools needed to become a great player and is still in a highly developmental state of his career having played just one year apiece in both college and the NBA. Nobody else on the roster is this raw.
There’s no question Winslow is going to take a step forward next year but depending on how big that step becomes, it could provide the boost needed to thrust the Heat from a fringe playoff team to something much more.