Justise Winslow is only seven games into his NBA career, but the 19-year-old is already doing things for the Miami Heat on defense beyond his years.
On most nights, after Luol Deng or other starters go to the bench, Winslow (6-7, 225) enters midway through the first quarter and usually earns the responsibility from coach Erik Spoelstra of guarding the opponent’s best wing player or distributor.
So far, he has guarded LeBron James, James Harden, Paul George and on Sunday drew Raptors leading scorer DeMar DeRozan. Winslow helped hold DeRozan to 35.7 percent shooting from the field, his second-worst shooting night of the season.
“The rook just came in and made an impact,” Heat center Hassan Whiteside said. “I really think he frustrated him, not fouling. [He] kept DeMar off the free-throw line.”
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Every great NBA shooter can have a bad night, and that can help pad someone’s defensive stats. But that’s obviously not the case with Winslow. Among players to defend at least 50 field-goal attempts this season, Winslow is tied for third in the NBA in defensive field-goal percentage (32.8 percent) with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio.
In defensive field-goal differential (which takes into account what a shooter normally shoots for the season and what they shoot when that particular player is guarding them), Winslow ranks 12th in the league, holding the players he guards collectively to 8 percent lower than their normal shooting percentage. That’s not just playing good defense. That’s playing elite defense.
And that’s something the Heat is doing collectively again as a team. Miami ranks third in the NBA in opposing field-goal percentage. Having the league’s top shot-blocker in Whiteside in the middle to deter opponents from driving into the paint obviously helps a lot. But so does having an elite perimeter defender such as Winslow, who is holding opponents to 21.1 percent shooting (8 of 38) from 15 feet or deeper.
“He’s confusing me,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh, who earlier this year joked that Winslow had the grown body of one of his uncles. “You always want to kind of be easy on the rookies, but he is raising the bar every game with his maturity and ability and knack to play defense.
“I’ve never seen anything like it as long as I’ve been in this league from a rookie. He’s not making many mistakes. He’s playing solid defense. He’s already built like a tank. Him just being able to move his feet is helping us out a lot.”
Winslow’s next assignment Tuesday when the Lakers come to town will likely be future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.
“I’m always confident in myself,” Winslow said after Friday’s loss at Indiana, in which George scored 36 points but did most of his damage against Deng. “I’m still trying to figure out what exactly my role is with this team. But when I’m out there I’m going to try to make plays. Whether its coach putting the ball in my hands or defending the other team’s best player, I’ll give it my best shot.”
So where do the Heat’s other players rank when it comes to defense?
Entering Tuesday’s game, Miami has eight players who are holding the players they guard to below their regular shooting percentages: Chris Andersen (1 of 5, -29.1%), Mario Chalmers (13 of 38, -8.4%), Winslow (21 of 64, -8.0%), Gerald Green (7 of 21, -7.0%), Whiteside (49 of 111, -5.4%), Goran Dragic (20 of 52, -4.3%), Dwyane Wade (18 of 44, -2.7%) and Deng (31 of 76, -1.3%).