Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Justise Winslow
By the end of last season, the embarrassment of riches in the 2015 NBA draft class had become so overwhelmingly obvious that finding signs of stardom in its contingent was like pornography — you know it when you see it. What, then, were we supposed to make of Justise Winslow, a 19-year-old rookie who already emitted the air of veteran leadership, but whose counting stats looked commensurate with his first-year standing in the league? The eye test confirmed him as the kind of “winning” player teams need, which corresponds to his favorable reading by analytics, but Winslow’s intangible ways of impacting the Miami Heat made it hard to tell what “the leap” might look like for a player like him.
We’ve gotten a clearer reading as of late since his return to the court last week after missing 16 games with a dubiously labeled “sore wrist.” Perhaps no statement rang louder than Thursday’s 23-point, 13-rebound, three-assist, and four-steal performance in a 115–107 comeback victory over the Lakers, Winslow’s first career double-double, and arguably the most visibly dominant performance of his career. Yet, as is increasingly the case the more one watches Winslow operate, those numbers serve as validation, but they aren’t the draw here.
“People are just looking at stats,” Goran Dragic told the Sun Sentinel last week. “[Winslow’s] doing plays that you cannot see in stats, and that’s huge for the team. He can defend multiple positions. He can organize us. And he can find people. So that’s a unique talent.”
The idea of Justise Winslow as organizing principle is indeed an odd one, considering Winslow’s youth, but the Heat truly do rely on their second-year player to quarterback their defense, and he seems uniquely qualified to do so. It’s maybe easiest to describe Winslow as an amalgam of elements: equal parts Chuck Hayes’s girth and low center of gravity, Shane Battier’s spatial awareness, James Harden’s downhill running ability in the open floor, and Rajon Rondo in the last great defensive play he’ll ever make in his career. Winslow is the first to bark orders and point to where his teammates need to be, he’ll call out switches in real time, and coordinate the transfer seamlessly. At 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, he has both the elite lateral mobility to dance around screens and the bulldozer strength to blow them up completely. What makes his brand of defense so compelling, though, is an almost extrasensory feel for the dynamics of the chessboard. Take a look at this play from late in the first quarter of Thursday’s game:
It would appear like Winslow’s full attention is on D’Angelo Russell here. Jordan Clarkson, noticing that Winslow’s back is turned, calls for the ball as he tries to exploit the pocket behind Miami’s defensive line. It’s a smart idea, especially considering how talented Russell is at delivering the ball in tight quarters. Clarkson tries to rub Winslow and coerce him into stepping up to Russell as he fakes a screen and motions toward the basket. But despite not having even looked at Clarkson for the entirety of the possession, Winslow sniffs the play out, keeping his off arm close to Clarkson as he juts toward the paint and widens himself between Clarkson and the incoming pass, knocking the ball away in a half-spin with that same off arm. I damn near spilled my bowl of soup watching it the first time around.
Winslow often keeps his arms positioned wide on defense, and it’s reminiscent of a centipede’s antenna pointing the way forward, or licking your finger to determine the wind’s direction. The more space he can account for, the more space he’s aware of. Here Winslow is on one of his steals on the night.
Winslow didn’t contest very many shots on Thursday, but that’s only because he was able to disrupt plays before they even got to that point; he had a game-high five deflections against the Lakers.
On offense, Winslow got going largely due to how much room he was allowed. With Larry Nance Jr. out with injury and Julius Randle tending to the birth of his child, the Lakers were undermanned in the frontcourt, and opted to leave only one traditional center on the court at all times, with perimeter-oriented players surrounding either Timofey Mozgov or Thomas Robinson. That meant in Los Angeles’s switch-heavy defensive scheme, Winslow had some kind of physical edge against any of the other four players on the floor that would be tasked with defending him on any given possession. He repeatedly bullied smaller players in the post, showing off some nifty hook shots along the way.
Against a team like the Lakers, the Heat were able to take full advantage of Winslow’s physical gifts by playing him at power forward alongside Hassan Whiteside, which is how they closed the final six minutes of the game in a lineup that included floor spacers Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Richardson. That was the five-man unit that sealed the Heat’s comeback win. “[Winslow] was just dominating down there at that four spot,” Whiteside said after the game. “He was down there rebounding, getting to the basket, letting the game to come him, throwing lobs. He played great. When he brings that, it really helps us a lot. He’s really dynamic. I feel like this is probably the first game since his injury he was comfortable out there.”
It was beautiful to watch the Heat clear out, almost with pride, to let Winslow, their 20-year-old ad hoc power forward, call the shots on offense at the top of the arc. I imagine Heat fans Thursday night saw in Winslow’s play the glowing specters of what lies ahead. He’s an against-the-grain talent who has arrived just in time to see the game invert itself: 7-footers primarily shooting from behind the arc, and swingmen tasked with defending four different positions. It’s still too early to tell how Winslow’s unusual star potential will manifest, but it’s already hard to imagine the Heat’s future without him guiding the way.