Michigan State’s placement as the no. 2 seed in the East region of the 2019 NCAA tournament sparked controversy. The Spartans were one of just two teams in the six major basketball conferences to win their regular-season and league tournament titles. They beat Michigan three times, including after rallying from 13 points down in the second half of Sunday’s Big Ten championship game. And yet Sparty was given a tougher draw than its in-state rivals. If Michigan State reaches this year’s Elite Eight, it’ll likely face off against Duke, the tourney’s no. 1 overall seed, led by a generational talent in Zion Williamson.
Spartans junior point guard Cassius Winston hasn’t delivered an array of that-shouldn’t-be-humanly-possible highlights like Williamson, but he’s proved every bit as crucial to his team’s success. He’s averaging 18.9 points and 7.6 assists per game, tops on Michigan State in both categories. Last week he was named the AP Big Ten Player of the Year. If head coach Tom Izzo’s program is to snap its run of recent March disappointments—it was bounced by 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State in 2016 and 11th-seeded Syracuse in 2018—it’ll rely on Winston to do it.
Winston has grown into the leader of a Spartans team that sits at 28-6 and ripped off 13 consecutive wins at one point earlier this season. The Detroit native scored 18 points in the second half of a come-from-behind, 86-77 win at Ohio State on January 5. He dropped a game-high 27 in a 77-70 victory in Ann Arbor on February 24. Winston’s impact even has this team vying for a spot in school lore. According to Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System, a metric that accounts for average point differential and strength of schedule, these Spartans could go down as the most analytically impressive team in program history.
And while Winston’s game might not defy physics, he’s still capable of inducing his fair share of double takes. Here’s a clip of him dicing up Michigan forward Isaiah Livers en route to a right-handed scoop shot:
Just watch Cassius Winston go to work. pic.twitter.com/JzqhKR4nb2— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 17, 2019
And here he is breaking a Purdue defender’s ankles:
CASSIUS WINSTON AKA ANKLE BULLY pic.twitter.com/euqcHuDXkU— Spartan Digital (@SpartyDigital) January 9, 2019
As a member of the Spartans’ 2016 recruiting class, Winston was largely overshadowed by five-star prospects Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford. When Jaren Jackson Jr. joined the fold a year later, Winston was relegated to second fiddle once again. With those three out of the picture (Bridges and Jackson are in the NBA, while Langford is done for the year with an ankle injury), Winston has become the face of one of the hottest teams heading into the NCAA tournament. And how he fares over the coming few weeks will not only determine Sparty’s fate; it will determine his 2019 NBA draft stock, too.
Winston’s brilliance this season transcends standard box score statistics. He ranks second in Division I in offensive rating and assist rate, trailing Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, respectively, in those categories. Given that company, one might presume that Winston is a sought-after NBA prospect. Yet ESPN projects him as the 85th-best player (and 16th-best point guard) expected to be available in this year’s class.
Part of the explanation behind Winston’s lack of NBA buzz may stem from his status as an upperclassman, a breed of college player that’s seen its draft rate steadily decline over the past decade. In 2009, 34 upperclassmen were drafted; last June, only 23 heard their names called. It also doesn’t help that Winston is listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds—less than ideal for a league in which size and positional versatility are paramount. In 2009, seven players 6-foot-1 and shorter were drafted. Last year, only three players with those heights were selected.
Still, there’s a market for players like Winston. In the past 10 NBA drafts, 60 upperclassman point guards have been drafted. Of those 60, 39 were taken in the second round. Out of that group, some significant names have emerged: Isaiah Thomas (60th overall in 2011) is a two-time All-Star who was once named All-NBA second team, while Spencer Dinwiddie (38th overall in 2014) and Jordan Clarkson (46th overall in 2014) both have earned contracts that pay more than $10 million annually. There’s value in taking a heady playmaker who ran circles around his college competition.
It’s unreasonable to expect Winston to reach Thomas’s peak, but his game, from an advanced stats perspective, compares favorably to upperclassman guards who have entered the NBA in recent years. Winston ranks first in offensive box plus/minus, second in assist percentage, fourth in win shares per 40 minutes, sixth in usage, and seventh in player efficiency rating among the 28 upperclassman point guards drafted since 2014. And his well-rounded offensive game is difficult to defend. Go under the screen in a pick-and-roll? Winston shoots 40.4 percent from deep. Funnel him to the rim? He draws 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes, tied for 10th in arguably the most bruising conference in the country. Try to force him to cough the ball up? He’s ninth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio among players who dropped at least 200 dimes this season. Even Winston’s slight frame hasn’t stopped him from excelling. Among Big Ten players 6-foot-1 or shorter who take at least 30 percent of their shots at the rim, Winston is third in field goal percentage at the basket, trailing only Michigan’s Zavier Simpson, hook shot artist, and Penn State’s Jamari Wheeler.
Winston has the makings of a rotation-level NBA point guard who can come off the bench and run the offense. Those types of players are coveted in today’s league. Just look at Monte Morris, a 2017 second-round pick who has gone from two-way player to crucial element of the Denver Nuggets’ “funky bunch.”
Another early exit in March would not only hurt Winston’s draft stock, but also continue a concerning trend for Izzo. In the 21 NCAA tournament appearances (not counting this year) Michigan State has made under Izzo, the Spartans have advanced past opening weekend 13 times. The program has failed to make it out of the second round for the past three seasons, though, despite having future NBA lottery picks like Bridges, Jackson, and Denzel Valentine on the roster.
Of the 25 players Izzo has coached who have been drafted and/or gone on to play in the NBA, 18 reached at least one Final Four. Of those 18, 13 were upperclassmen when they did it. Of those 13, nine were either drafted in the second round or went undrafted. In other words, the Izzo teams that have played deep into March aren’t typically led by top prospects. They’re led by guys like Winston, and if he keeps up his play and helps lead the program on another deep run, he could join that list.
Sparty got a tough draw on Selection Sunday. But Winston has a knack for working through tough situations before finishing in style.