So much has been made of Justise Winslow’s shooting struggles to start the season it’s clear all the talk is beginning to get old.
“Y'all want me to give you a book,” Winslow responded Sunday when asked how he’s been able to keep the right attitude after starting the season by making only 26 of his 77 shots from the field (33.8%) and only three for 18 from three-point range (16.7%).
“It's simple,” he continued. “You shoot with confidence and you keep playing. You think the last shot went in and you think the next shot is going in. You think the shot your teammate is about to shoot is going in. You think the last shot your teammate shot is going in. That's how you build people's confidence. That's how you get other people confidence. That's it. That's a little part of my book I gave y’all. I didn't want to give y’all the whole book.”
The whole story with Winslow isn’t his shooting struggles. Rather, it’s how much more he’s got on his plate this season.
Last season, as the Heat’s 19-year-old, first round pick, Winslow’s role was to come off the bench, provide energy on the defensive end, and to create offense occasionally when he could either take it to the rim or find an open teammate on dribble penetration.
This season, Winslow is not only starting and covering the opposing team’s best player most nights and in crunch time, but he’s also serving as the backup point guard while also trying to fix a jump shot he spent all summer trying to improve.
That’s a lot for a 20-year-old, second-year player to handle, and the results early haven’t always been good.
For starters, Winslow’s defensive metrics aren’t as good as last season. Opponents are shooting 54.3 percent (38 of 70) when he's guarded them, 7.7 percent better than their average shooting percentage according to the NBA’s tracking system. Last season, Winslow held the players he guarded to 42.7 percent shooting (328 of 768 field goals), 1.5 percent below their average shooting percentage.
Part of Winslow's drop can be attributed to the fact he's now starting (he started only eight games last season) and guarding the best wings in the league when they are fresh, and then switching over to other positions when needed. Friday in Toronto, he guarded DeMar DeRozan in crunch time. Monday, there will assuredly be times when he’s asked to slow down Russell Westbrook.
As tough as those assignments are on a night-to-night basis, coach Erik Spoelstra and Winslow believe it’s an assignment he can handle.
“The more we give him, the more he responds,” Spoelstra said. “And if he wasn't able to do that, we would have given him less.
“Sometimes with Justise, it's very cerebral. If you're going over a game plan of other positions, he's paying attention as if he's going to have that matchup, as well. And that's what you want. You want everybody to take on that kind of attention to detail. And he's been around us long enough that he knows he's one through four.”
This year, though, he’s also had to learn how where all of his teammates are on the court at all times on the other side of the court. As the de-facto backup point guard to Goran Dragic, Winslow has gone from averaging 40.8 touches per game last season (seventh on the team) to averaging 69.2, second-most behind only Dragic.
While his assists are up from 1.5 to 4.4, so are his turnovers from 1.2 to 2.2.
Winslow, though, insists none of the new challenges he’s been presented have overwhelmed him.
“This is what you want. You want to be challenged as a person,” he said Sunday. “You don't want to be asked to do the same things as a person. You want to be able to grow. That's part of the reason people change teams or go to new teams or go wherever they want to go. Luckily, I was able to find an expanded role on this team. So, I'm just going out there trying to do my job and the coaches continue to give me new jobs, new tasks and continue to challenge me and grow as a player mentally and my skill set. I'm fortunate enough to be on a team where I'm asked to do a lot. And so I'm just embracing it.”
Spoelstra said there simply has been too much focus on Winslow’s shooting struggles rather than his overall impact. There, he actually ranks seventh on the team according to the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate with a 5.4 rating. That’s right behind Willie Reed (10.1), James Johnson (9.0) and Luke Babbitt (6.5).
“Everybody is looking at just the numbers, statistics, but a lot of people don't see the other plays he makes defensively, or how he rotates on defense and how he's in the right spots,” Dragic said. “That's huge for the team.”
Spoelstra said the more the Heat comes together in creating offensive efficiency the more players will begin operating in “their strength zones.” That in turn will help Winslow’s field goal percentage go up.
“It's not going to happen overnight, but we're really getting a clear picture of how teams are playing us,” Spoelstra said. “We'll get better at it.”
In the meantime, he’s going to continue to trust Winslow to grow and handle all of his responsibilities much the same way Pat Riley trusted Dwyane Wade as a young, budding star.
“The one thing that we have learned about him is the more we challenge him, the more he responds," Spoelstra said of Winslow. “[Wade and Winslow are] different players, but of similar minds. Dwyane could handle a lot as a young player. And Justise is similar. They both understand meaning and scope of winning and all the different layers. You have to be a very high IQ player. I guess in that regard you can compare those two.”