Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Miami Heat’s Justise Winslow showing signs of being a franchise cornerstone

Heat rookie Justise Winslow, right, drew praise from Pacers star Paul George after Winslow’s tight defense helped Miami hold off Indiana 103-100 in overtime Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Miami.
Heat rookie Justise Winslow, right, drew praise from Pacers star Paul George after Winslow’s tight defense helped Miami hold off Indiana 103-100 in overtime Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Miami. AP

The Pacers had a three-point deficit and five seconds to inbound.

Justise Winslow had five words in his head.

“Don’t let him get it.”

That was the Heat rookie’s mission on Indiana’s final possession in overtime on Monday, no matter how long that possession took, nor how many tries the Pacers got. Don’t let Paul George get it. The ball. The tie. So Winslow made George wear him like a snug sweater, from the restricted area to the top of the arc and — with assistance from Dwyane Wade first and Chris Bosh second — forced the Pacers to call two timeouts.

During the second stoppage, Pacers coach Frank Vogel chose to try something different to free George, directing him to flair to the far corner. Winslow thought that wise, since it was hard to see the ball soaring over his head, and since his calf was cramping and he couldn’t really leap. “Just try to contest as much as I can,” Winslow said.

George got the ball, but had to step back. Winslow reached. George missed. Winslow clapped, gently.

Later, George said he liked his look, but the Heat liked it more.

And the Heat loves the way Winslow, at 19, continues to look in these situations. He looks poised and prepared. He is looking — and sounding — like a cornerstone, his approach embodying the franchise culture. And, even as his offensive repertoire remains unrefined, he should be untouchable, just as in July, when the Heat turned down six draft choices from the Celtics to take him 10th overall.

“From the day we drafted him, I knew he was going to be a special guy,” Bosh said. “I felt a lot of teams had made a bunch of mistakes. That was the first day I knew it was going to be OK.”

That’s high praise coming from someone who, in 2003-04, was among the more precocious players in NBA history — Bosh played more minutes in a season he started as a teenager than all but five others, including LeBron James,, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. Winslow (27.2 minutes) now ranks 19th, one spot (and 0.1) behind current teammate Luol Deng’s minute average in 2004-05 for Chicago.

But Winslow is not just playing. He’s playing against the best, who are stingy with credit. George started Monday by saying Winslow has “got a lot to learn,” before calling him a good, solid, aggressive young defender “with great feet.”

“It’s good he’s getting the big matchups now, and then it’s all about experience over time,” George said. “The same with Kawhi [Leonard] and myself, we gradually got bigger roles and bigger situations. He’ll make his name on the defensive end for sure.”

Already is.

This is no longer about Winslow being advanced merely for his age. He’s numerically elite. According to SportVU, Winslow is holding his assignment to 5.8 percentage points below that player’s overall percentage, better than George on defense, much better than Jimmy Butler, and nearly as stifling as Leonard. Winslow is even better at limiting three-pointers; opponents suffer a 9.9 percentage point drop from their average.

That’s better than all three.

Better still? His attitude.

He’s never satisfied, and wasn’t with his work on George: “I thought I did a good job, and come back and look at the stat sheet, and he has 32. He’s a tough guy to guard, one of the hardest for me. Just because, isolation, pindowns, backscreens, he can score every way.”

He’s never scared, nor scarred. He got the picture, while guarding Wade daily in training camp, that NBA stars “make a lot of tough shots.” Then James made five of them early in the season’s second game.

“That’s kind of when I learned that lesson,” Winslow said.

He keeps learning it, whether facing George, Durant or Anthony. When he gets beat? “I show emotion sometimes,” he said. “But most of the time, I just like to be chill … and just go to the next play.”

Offense? That’s lagged. Turnovers. Errant jump shots. Even so, he’s not trending far below what Leonard and George did offensively as rookies, and he’s ahead of Butler, who didn’t play much.

Monday, he spoke of waiting his turn behind on offense behind Wade and Bosh, setting screens, grabbing rebounds. He spoke of studying Butler and Leonard — specifically how their offense took more time, before becoming top two-way players.

“They found a way to get it done now,” Winslow said.

Now it’s his task to try to stop them. He gets that. He gets it all. The Heat can’t let him get away.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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