As Justise Winslow prepared for his freshman year at Duke, the staging ground for his emergence as a nationally known talent, he cited three short-term goals. Get good grades in college? Winslow was honored with recognition on the All-ACC Academic Team. Win a national championship? Not only did he win a title as a member of the champion Duke Blue Devils, but Winslow was also named to the Final Four All-Tournament Team. And there may not be an award to certify his third goal of being someone kids can look up to, hearing his name called in the lottery on draft night wouldn't be a bad start. Winslow has quickly bloomed into perhaps the most desired wing prospect in this draft in large part because of that tenacity both on and off the court. With his defense, poise, and work ethic, Justise Winslow would make for a fantastic addition to the Knicks' young core.
"I'm an athletic wing. I can do a lot: Rebound, defend, get to the basket."
That's from Winslow himself in an interview with teammate Grayson Allen. It's refreshing to hear a potential top five pick cite rebounding and defense to start an appraisal of his own game, but that's the type of player Winslow is. It's true that the most appealing aspect of his skillset is that defensive intensity. There were few players in college as dynamic as Winslow when he was engaged; he averaged nearly a block and 1.4 steals in fewer than 30 minutes per game this season. He certainly owes some of his interior production to the shift down to power forward, but he deserves credit for his ability to adapt and assume more of a big man role.
Winslow stands out for his willingness to maintain a defensive stance and contest opponents' shots. He gives multiple efforts on defense, and his explosive athleticism allows him to make impressive plays. Consider this from a February 18th overtime win against North Carolina. Winslow starts the defensive possession defending J.P. Tokoto. His teammate, Amile Jefferson, allows Isaiah Hicks to establish great post position with both feet in the paint and Hicks gets Jefferson in the air with an up-and-under. Winslow, out at the three-point line, should be out of the play but:
With one powerful step Winslow powers up and meets Hicks at the rim, pinning the ball off of the backboard (it was ruled a goaltend). That kind of explosive defensive talent makes Winslow enticing; few wings in the NBA threaten to alter shots at the rim, and Winslow could become just such a player. His extremely high foul rate is a bit concerning; Justise Winslow was second in the ACC in personal fouls committed. It's hard to deny the impact he made as a defender at Duke, though. He has nice physical tools for that role in the NBA despite being undersized for a forward, but it's his effort that makes him truly unique. Winslow shows sharp focus when on the court, and will commit to plays many other players his age give up on. Do you recall LeBron James in his prime hunting down opponents' layups in transition?
Winslow probably won't ever display anything like LeBron's all-around game, but the Duke forward's ability to make plays defending the break is reminiscent of James'. Winslow's incredible sense of timing led to big-time blocks in situations that should have yielded points. The Knicks finished last season 26th in opponents' pace-adjusted points off of turnovers, surrendering 18.1 per 100 possessions. With an offense designed to create shots primarily by way of the pass, the roster could use some insurance against their inevitable turnovers. Justise appears capable of providing that, but what's more impressive is his willingness to defend in situations that don't show up on the box score.
Winslow commits to being a team defender, and uses his quick feet to slip around screens and rotate to shooters consistently. He's strong enough to make scorers think twice about posting up against him, and is a constant threat to poke the ball loose and sprint downcourt for a dunk. Winslow is in fantastic condition, and rarely looks tired despite his frenetic energy output on the floor. It's fair to say Winslow is as good a defensive wing we've seen get drafted in the top-10 since Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a player to whom he's drawn favorable comparisons.
Like Kidd-Gilchrist, though, Winslow looks to be a raw player on the offensive end. He lacks the handle to create offense consistently off the bounce, leading to a somewhat low usage rate. Winslow is much better attacking after the defense has bent in the opposite direction rather than creating shots against a set scheme. He's hard to stop when he gets a head of steam: His strong 222-pound frame draws contact in the paint, and his .438 free throw rate reflects his ability to force opponents to foul him around the rim. Unfortunately Winslow did not shoot a great percentage from the free throw line in college, and his struggles there may be indicative of a larger shooting issue. A lot of attention is paid to his gaudy 42% 3-point percentage, but his poor performance there in high school and his sometimes flat shooting form suggest a possible tough transition to the deeper NBA line. That said, Winslow is regarded to be a workhorse in the gym and he has plenty of time to build consistency in that area. Still, I wouldn't assume he'll enter as a professional shooting a high percentage. It's difficult to imagine Winslow maintaining his efficiency if defenders aren't respecting his jump shot, because he's not much of a threat from the midrange at all.
Kirk Goldsberry's shot chart shows Winslow's limitations as well as any description. He isn't comfortable pulling up off the dribble, and often kicked the ball back out to the perimeter if he couldn't find an open lane to the rim. Winslow won't have that luxury as often with a 24-second shot clock. Playing alongside a scorer as talented as Carmelo Anthony should hide that weakness to some degree, but Winslow will have to force defenders to respect his perimeter shot to open up good shot opportunities.
Questions remain about what position Winslow will play in the NBA. He played well as a power forward in college, but he'd be drastically undersized for that position in the NBA. Winslow stands at 6'6.5" with a 6'10" wingspan. Those are solid measurements for a shooting guard, but it's fairly unimpressive for an elite NBA prospect (That's roughly what Danny Green and Lance Stephenson measured, neither of whom are considered viable forwards). Winslow is certainly strong enough to hang with bigger wings, but it would be most beneficial to the Knicks if he could transition to shooting guard. He makes a better complement to Melo as a guard, and his versatility would be welcome for a still-very-incomplete roster.
Would you draft a player based off of intangibles? Winslow was certainly a productive player in college, but the primary reason he's being discussed in the conversation with other likely top-5 picks is his strong intangibles. He's a hard worker, with a chiseled NBA body, who has shown himself to be a proven winner and a great teammate at every level. He's already won three gold medals with Team USA, he comes across as intelligent and studious in interviews, and he shows great effort on the court. Winslow is the type of player your parents would love. It's part of the reason so many are willing to minimize his flaws, but he's far from a perfect prospect. He had a great tourney run, but if Winslow turns out to be closer to the player we saw to start the 2014-2015 season rather than the player who surged towards the end there will be many disappointed fans in Madison Square Garden next season.
To be clear: I like Justise Winslow a good deal as a prospect. He stands a good chance as any wing in this draft to emerge as a strong contributor to a great team. It says a lot about the quality of this draft that he's not a lock to get selected in the top-5. He's a versatile wing who's easy to imagine as a high-level role-player in the NBA for a long time. At just 19, he still has plenty of time to grow into a great player. If the Knicks can support his growth as he mends his rougher edges Winslow could grow into a tremendous do-it-all support wing next to Melo.