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All Hail Justise Winslow

El Nuevo Herald/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The Miami Heat are off to a 6-3 start thanks in large part to a surprisingly stifling defense, timely bench play, and a pretty weak schedule if we’re being honest about it.

Miami can’t control the schedule, but it’s fair to point out that they’ve done a very good job of beating who they’re supposed to beat, the lone exception being the Indiana Pacers. Even with that, a three-point loss to Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back while Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic were terrible, Hassan Whiteside was practically lost on both ends, and Paul George went nova (36 points, 12 rebounds) isn’t all that bad considering the circumstances.

As for Miami’s great defense (so far, anyway) and their bench play: Both benefitted greatly by the play of Justise Winslow.

As a die-hard Heat fan, it can be difficult to toe the line between being objective and being fanatical. I have absolutely no problem admitting that Winslow has pushed me to the brink so far this year.

THE GUY IS ONLY 19! HE IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE SO SMART! SO POISED! SO GOOD!

(Or so reluctant to shoot, but we’ll get to that)

Winslow is averaging a “modest” 7.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.4 assists off the bench. What’s outstanding is how much faith Erik Spoelstra has in Winslow. He’s typically the first man up in the #SpoStagger and plays a ton.

His 28.4 minutes per game ranks ahead of starter Luol Deng (27.9), and he actually leads the Heat with 84 4th quarter minutes while Deng has only played 27.

I suspect the reason that Winslow doesn’t start is because he just can’t shoot well enough to do so. If that’s the reasoning, it’s hard to disagree with it.

Via Basketball-Reference, Winslow is 6-22 (27.3%) on shots outside of 15 feet, and 3-15 (20%) from three. His shot chart is…well:

justise shot chart

To be fair to Winslow, he does have value on offense mostly because of his IQ. He understands spacing, knows when to cut (he’s 5-8 FG off cuts this year, via NBA.com play type data), and doesn’t try to force anything offensively:

That last part has been a bit of a gift and a curse because he passes up quite a bit of open threes, like here:

Winslow typically makes up for it by moving the ball to keep the offense flowing, so that’s good. He does need to become more of a threat out there if for no other reason than to keep defenses honest when guarding him off the ball.

Assuming he continues to play better, and considering the fact he already closes out games, Winslow may be starting in place of Deng pretty soon if his shot becomes competent.

Where Winslow really stands out is on defense. I mean, really stands out.

Winslow is holding opponents to 34.5% shooting as the primary defender this year, which is second in the NBA among wing players who have defended at least 75 shots this year.

First on the list? Carmelo Anthony. So there’s your WHUT!?! Trivia of the Day.

You could honestly argue that Winslow has been the best perimeter defender in the league not named Kawhi Leonard this year.

As a matter of fact:

justise kawhi

 

heat kermit

photoshop credit — @NykolisC

 

The fun part: this isn’t even a case of Winslow just bullying opposing bench scorers. He’s been trusted to guard the other team’s best player for big minutes.

Via NBASavant, Winslow held James Harden to 1-7 shooting, Gordon Hayward to 2-7 shooting, DeMar DeRozan to 1-4 shooting, and Andrew Wiggins to 0-5 shooting. During Miami’s game against Cleveland, Winslow guarded LeBron James. James went 3-3 from the floor against Winslow, but I mean, look at this defense:

The second play against LeBron is what makes Winslow such a great on-ball defender. He stays grounded, crowds his man, but contests without fouling. It’s not easy to play aggressive and smart defense, but early on this year Winslow has been able to pull it off.

Seriously, Harden, Wiggins, Hayward, DeRozan, and LeBron combining to shoot 7-26 (26.9%) from the floor against Winslow is flat-out absurd.

Winslow’s smart play offensively and elite on-ball defense is why he’s been relied upon so much so early. It’s also why he’s a team-best plus-66 with Chris Bosh a somewhat distant second at plus-54.

Via Basketball-Reference, the Heat have the NBA’s 2nd best defense, giving up just 96.5 points per 100 possessions. Miami gives up 90.2 points per 100 possessions when Winslow is on the floor, which is five points lower than San Antonio’s NBA-leading mark of 95.2. That number balloons to 106.4 when Winslow is on the bench, a mark that would rank 21st in the NBA.

It’s been a few months, and nobody quite knows how Winslow slipped so far in the draft. Outside of Karl-Anthony Towns and maybe Kristaps Porzingis, Winslow has been the best two-way force from this year’s rookie class. It’s obviously early, and it’s fair to assume that Winslow will hit the proverbial rookie wall at some point.

But what if he doesn’t?

There’s plenty of tangible talent here. Despite his lack of a shot, Winslow is a smart passer, underrated ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, a good rebounder, and is a strong — and sometimes creative — finisher at the basket:

https://youtu.be/4qusDgvCdWc

His IQ on both ends and his defense is what sets him apart because those are typically the areas rookies struggle with the most. His understanding of the game is insane for someone his age, which is why I believe that besides Towns, Winslow has the highest floor of any rookie. Even if his shot never materializes (a gross prediction this early in his career), Winslow is so smart and stout defensively that he’ll still be a reliable player in the NBA.

At best, Winslow could be in that Jimmy Butler/Kawhi Leonard mold. Just for the heck of it, look at this:

justise jimmy kawhi

It’s a small sample size, but the numbers for Butler and Winslow are pretty comparable, although, Butler would get the overall edge. What works in Winslow’s favor is the fact that he’s 19 right now, and won’t turn 20 until March. Barring injury issues, he has plenty of time to improve.

If Winslow becomes the next Jimmy Butler or better, they’d have the perfect wing for Wade to pass the torch to when he eventually retires. Even if you don’t want to project that far ahead, Heat fans should definitely cherish how well Winslow has played so far.

After a tumultuous campaign last season where the Heat missed the playoffs, Justise is being served early on this year.

And it is oh so sweet.

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