Miami Heat

Justise Winslow emerges from ‘a really dark time’ to find happiness on and off the court

It’s hard to explain Justise Winslow’s midseason transformation.

But those closest to the 22-year-old Heat guard believe they know one of the biggest reasons behind Winslow’s sudden improvement.

His oldest brother, Brandon, described the previous two seasons as a “storm” and his mother, Robin Davis, called it “a really dark time” in Winslow’s life. Winslow’s family and friends believe the new and improved version of Winslow on the court has a lot to do with the new and improved version of Winslow off the court.

A happier and more mature Winslow, who was drafted by the Heat with the 10th overall pick in 2015 at the age of 19.

“There’s a lot of pressure to play good, and it blocked him mentally,” Brandon said. “At first, it’s exciting because you’re in the NBA. Then comes the pressure, you have to perform, the comparisons, Twitter. It’s just so much.

“I think it took him a while to learn how to deal with that, how to control it, how to block it out and to find his rhythm. I always tell him before games, just have fun and be happy. Mom tells him to smile. It’s just that he’s finding his way just to go out there and have fun, and not worry about what everyone else thinks or expects — just doing him.”

Dark times

That wasn’t always easy for Winslow, who admits the previous two seasons included “dark times.”

This period in Winslow’s life began in the middle of 2016-17 when he suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery to repair a torn labrum and cut his second NBA season short after just 18 games. And it continued in 2017-18 when his third NBA season didn’t live up to outside expectations.

“There were times when I didn’t know my place in this league or if I had a place or if I should go to the G League,” Winslow said. “There were times when I couldn’t sleep at night, not sleeping on nights before games. I was up just thinking, on the floor just thinking way too much and just not playing instinctively. I’m getting better with being open and talking about it. I think that’s the biggest key, just finding someone you feel comfortable talking to about it.”

While Winslow was never clinically diagnosed with depression or anxiety, focusing on the negative aspects of his life became a habit for him. Known as a thinker and a person who overanalyzes things, he would allow himself to get lost in his own thoughts after disappointing performances and tough days.

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“It’s a lot of things, dealing with my old girlfriend, family issues, their health, my health,” Winslow said. “There are just a lot of things that go into it. It’s just that stuff starts to pile up, and you start putting stuff off and the stress levels just keep going up. Then eventually you have something you haven’t handled from months ago and it blows up. It’s not easy being in this league. You get paid a lot of money and we have jobs to do, of course. But we still have the same stresses.”

Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow (20) and forward James Johnson (16) talk at mid court as the Miami Heat host the Boston Celtics at AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday, October 28, 2017. AL DIAZ

Stresses that only got worse while Winslow was away from the Heat because of his shoulder injury.

“It’s tough when you’re injured and you miss big parts of seasons, you’re never able to fully be what you’re supposed to be as an athlete,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You’re supposed to be out there expressing yourself physically. How that can affect somebody mentally, it’s different for every single player. But the average fan can’t understand how much that can affect your esteem and your mindset and your mood — all of these things.

“Then the expectations of who he wanted to be and the expectations of being a top-10 pick, so he had to navigate through a lot of different things that he had never been through before in his life. But the first step to that is vulnerability and being true about it and then working to find a solution.”

Derek Rhodes, who met and became close friends with Winslow while both attended Duke, lived with him during this two-year period. Derek had a first-hand look at all of it while living with his best friend at their Coconut Grove house.

Courtesy of Derek Rhodes The Heat's Justise Winslow spending time with his close friend Derek Rhodes.

From quiet postgame dinners to sleepless nights to emotional conversations, it didn’t take long for Derek to realize something was off with Winslow.

“I noticed that when I would go to bed after our postgame dinner, he would stay up and he would be playing music. It would be this very relaxing music, sometimes music with no lyrics,” Derek recalled. “It was just a simple piano track or a simple percussion track that he likes. So I think hearing that at 3 or 4 in the morning was sort of my first alarm that this was something deeper than just a bad game or that this was something bigger than having a tough practice.

“That was sort of the cue for me to like open the door and go check in. There were times where it would be 3, 4 in the morning and I would just stay up until we went to breakfast the next morning and made sure he got to practice.”

Those long nights turned into long conversations. Sometimes Derek would walk into Justise’s room to check in and other times it was Justise walking into Derek’s room looking for a person to talk to.

“There were times where he would wake up in the middle of the night and kind of push my door open and just sit on my bed,” Derek said. “Then I would wake up and he was there, and then we would start talking.

“I remember one morning Justise had not slept and I remember at dinner the night before after a game he said they had an early practice. I was usually the first person up in the mornings and Justise went and he got a coffee for me and him, and that’s how he woke me up at 6 in the morning. I knew he hadn’t slept, and that was his way of saying, ‘Hey, let’s talk.’”

Miami Heat Justise Winslow loses the ball as Philadelphia 76ers Dario Sanic defends in the first quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, February 27, 2018. CHARLES TRAINOR JR

It’s those conversations that really made Derek sensitive to criticism he ran into on social media regarding Winslow’s game. And there was plenty of it, as Winslow finished 24 games last season with five or fewer points.

“It’s infuriating, man. I did have to take a break from Twitter, in particular,” said Derek, who was swayed to move from New York City to live with Winslow in Miami by a three-page letter Winslow typed up selling the idea. “I’m somebody that enjoys social media and I think it has a lot of benefits. But to read things and to hear people talk about literally your best friend who you were just up with talking about something extremely difficult that probably a ton of people go through … for whatever reason, people on social media can’t empathize in that moment.”

Family and friends

There was plenty of empathy from Winslow’s family and friends, though. But there was no intervention.

There was only an open line of communication they made sure Winslow knew was there whenever he needed to talk about things.

“I felt like he felt like he needed to fight through it on his own,” said Robin, who spent a lot of time in Miami to be with Winslow over the first three seasons of his NBA career. “There were times I said, ‘Justise, hey, there’s a sports therapist. Maybe you should check it out.’ He would come home in the summer and I would slide numbers to him and give him information.

“Did he take me up on it? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I left that up to him because I can’t force him to go. But I can give him all the information. That’s the best I can do. Because if you try to force it on him, he’s going to turn the other way and I definitely didn’t want that to happen.”

Brandon took a similar approach.

“You just have to be there for him when he wants to open up and talk about it, and just be positive about it with him,” he said. “When Justise opens up, he opens up. The maturity when he opens up about it, it sets you back and sometimes I don’t know how to respond. I think that’s my biggest challenge, sometimes just not knowing how to respond to make him feel better. I just do my best to let him know I’m always there.”

Heat forward Justise Winslow at the bench during the first quarter of the Miami Heat vs Houston Rockets at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Thursday, December 20, 2018. Pedro Portal

As the youngest of four, it was obvious to those around Winslow there was something weighing him down. Even when he remained quiet about the issues he was facing, they knew.

“He doesn’t want to tell us because he doesn’t want us to worry,” Robin said. “But we can tell. You’re the baby of the family. We know when there’s something bothering you. We know what’s going on. It was a really dark time, especially when he had that surgery on his shoulder.

“Everyone goes through things. People have different weight on their shoulders. You don’t necessarily have to play ball.”

Opening up

For Winslow, it was his peers who helped inspire him to open up about his mental struggles.

Mental health issues have been a topic of conversation around the NBA after stars like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love revealed stories about their own mental health battles. DeRozan spoke up about depression and anxiety he’s dealt with and Love revealed his bouts with anxiety last season.

“I don’t know [DeRozan] personally, but to see him talk about it, Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre, it was inspiring because they weren’t afraid to show their vulnerabilities,” Winslow said. “That’s what it’s really all about. The first step is admitting that you need help and that’s so hard to do sometimes, but they did it and they inspired me to start speaking up to my friends or somebody I wanted to reach out and talk to. That was definitely inspiring.”

Miami Heat Justise Winslow tries not to foul Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan in the fourth quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, April 11, 2018. CHARLES TRAINOR JR

That’s when things started to change for Winslow.

Winslow never called the numbers his mother gave him and he never saw a therapist for his issues. Instead he went back to his hometown of Houston this past offseason and spent time with friends, family, old coaches and mentors who he trusted.

“It wasn’t someone that specialized in therapy or anything like that, but I was reaching out to everyone that I kind of felt safe with,” Winslow said. “People that were a safe place for me, a safe space. So those were the people that I reached out to.”

A new Winslow

Winslow returned to Miami for his fourth NBA season as a happier and more confident person.

After entering the season with career averages of 7.5 points and two assists, he’s averaged 14.3 points on 46.9 percent shooting from the field and 40.4 percent shooting from three-point range, 5.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 24 games since the start of December. He also has a team-best plus-minus of plus-81 during that stretch, which has come with Winslow playing as the Heat’s starting point guard with Goran Dragic injured for most of this time.

Winslow’s improvement has been one of the most encouraging developments of a season that has the Heat in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a 22-24 record.

Heat forward Justise Winslow drives to the basket against Magic’s forward Jonathon Simmons in the first quarter of the Miami Heat vs Orlando Magic at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Tuesday, December 04, 2018. Pedro Portal

“The guy I visited last week is not the same person I moved in with in so many ways,” Derek said earlier this week. “Obviously, on the court he’s more aggressive, he’s finishing at the rim, he’s shooting well, he’s defending at a high level. But the other side of that is I think he’s more confident in who he is and in himself. He understands what’s important to him.

“He’s not afraid to question things or to ask for help in ways that he might have originally shied away from just on account of his age. I also see Justise pushing those around him more now than he was doing when he got to the NBA. Even for me, that means constantly reminding me that I need to wake up earlier and I need to make my bed every day.”

It’s not a coincidence that Winslow’s growth on the court has been accompanied with plenty of growth off of it.

Derek moved from Miami to Washington, D.C., in September and Robin said Winslow “clipped his wings” from her recently in an attempt to live a more independent lifestyle. Brandon said he saw his brother turn into a “man” this past summer.

Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow (20) poses during Miami Heat media day at the American Airlines Arena in Miami on Monday, September 24, 2018. AL DIAZ

“That time was revealing for me. I got squeezed,” Winslow said of that two-year period in his life. “You squeeze a fruit or food or anything, you’re going to see what it’s made out of. I think the good times, the bad times that filled those years, they revealed the kind of person I am.

“There were times that I doubted myself for sure and almost stopped believing. But that person, that kid that always dreamed about being here, that kid still persevered.”

That doesn’t mean Winslow is completely over the “dark times,” though. Negative thoughts still float around his mind sometimes, but he’s doing a better job of controlling them.

“It definitely wasn’t an easy thing to get through, but I’m here,” said Winslow, who signed a three-year, $39 million extension with the Heat in October. “I still got a ways to go. There’s still sometimes some negativity and negative thoughts and some haziness. But I’m figuring it out.”

Robin can tell Winslow is finally genuinely happy. In the past, she questioned if his happiness was real.

“You don’t look happy,” she would tell him.

Robin doesn’t question it anymore. She can now tell his smile is authentic.

“Now I look at him and he looks happy,” she said. “When I know he’s really happy, he sends me a little signal up in the stands. So I know he’s happy.”

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.