Tim Duncan played his first game in the NBA in Denver on Halloween night in 1997. Justise Winslow isn’t likely to remember much.
He was 19 months old and, because he was a Houston baby, if he put down his bottle, it probably wasn’t to pull for the Spurs. But there the two men were, one grizzled and one green, at center court Monday night — shaking hands and then posing for a photo together, with Winslow breaking from his usual stoicism to flash a sheepish smile.
If nothing else, the moment was a reminder of how much of Winslow’s career in is front of him. And although it might not last for 19 seasons, to match Duncan’s magical mastery tour, it’s wise not to make too much of the manner in which it starts.
This needs to be said after Winslow’s third preseason game went much like his first two, with 24 minutes, 1-of-5 shooting, two points, six rebounds and three assists. In halfcourt sets, he was often ignored, especially when paired with neon green light Gerald Green on the wings; it was tough to tell at times whether he was failing to make himself available or whether it would have mattered anyway. When he did get opportunities late, he couldn’t connect, whether it was airballing a pull-up three-pointer or missing a transition layup. The slow release on his jumper? He will need to address that over time.
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He again made more of an impression on the other end, where he showed his innate ability to contest without fouling, extend with flailing. He is an NBA-ready defender, immediately, as is his fellow rookie Josh Richardson, which was apparent as they swarmed the backup Spurs to spearhead a late comeback.
But whatever Winslow does now, or even does this season, none of the conclusions should come too quickly.
Not if recent history is any guide.
Winslow has already grown weary of comparisons to established players, but three represent the ideal for the Heat, because they are now among the game’s elite two-way wings: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler. And although it might seem contradictory to call for restraint, and then summon those three names — a Finals MVP and two All-Stars — as models, it’s not if you keep a time line in mind.
Remember, none were drafted higher than the Heat took Winslow. George, like Winslow, went 10th. Leonard went 15th. Butler went 30th. Nor was there a common belief among scouts and executives that any had “slipped” and should have gone higher, as has been the consensus viewpoint regarding Winslow.
Leonard and Butler were initially added, like Winslow, to veteran teams, teams that didn’t require major contributions from rookies to remain competitive. The Spurs had won 61 before they traded George Hill for Leonard’s draft rights. The Bulls had won 62 before they took a flier on Butler. The Pacers, coming off a 32-win season, needed a little more help, but they didn’t rush George either.
And that’s what is easy to forget, in considering whether Winslow could become what George, Leonard and Butler are now. None of them were what they are now from the start. Not even close. Leonard, entering the NBA at age 20, averaged 24.1 minutes, 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds as a rookie. George, entering at age 20, averaged 20.1 minutes, 7.8 points and 3.7 rebounds as a rookie. Butler, entering at age 22, averaged 8.5 minutes, 2.6 points and 1.3 rebounds as a rookie.
But, then, in 2013, in his third season, George won Most Improved Player. In 2014,to end his third season, Leonard won NBA Finals MVP. And in 2015, his fourth season, Butler made his first All-Star team and won Most Improved Player.
Will Winslow follow a similar track?
There’s no way to know yet, even though it’s fortunate for him that he fell to the Heat; many scouts believed that Winslow’s growth would be stunted on a struggling team, because he’d be expected to do too much. They believed that, without one dominant offensive skill, he’d be best-suited for a team on which he could comfortably blend in.
And it’s promising that his coach clearly trusts him already to contribute to a potential contender.
“He’s not a guy that you can probably evaluate with necessarily analytics,” Erik Spoelstra said.
Spoelstra referenced “the little things.”
“He just has a great pace to him,” Spoelstra said. “Again, for a young player, he plays with veteran poise. But he plays with a youthful intensity, particularly on the defensive end.”
So don’t worry too much about the pace of progress.
Not in Year One.