Ethan J. Skolnick

The promise of Justise Winslow gives Heat hope for the future

Justise Winslow isn’t a kid anymore, certainly not compared to the baby-faced participants at South Broward High. And as they sheepishly approached him, one by one, with whatever the NBA team they were impersonating at Heat Basketball Camp, he tried to make them feel as comfortable as he so often appears now.

“What team is this?” Winslow asked one, with a smile. “The Clippers? Are you Chris Paul?”

Winslow knows all about comparisons. Ever since the Heat drafted him last season at No. 10 overall, people can’t stop trying to project who he might someday become. Kawhi Leonard? Jimmy Butler? Ron Artest, as Dwyane Wade suggested?

But after a miraculously mature rookie season that showed his promise — and also some pockmarks — this much is clear: What the Heat needs going forward is just a continually, incrementally improved version of Justise Winslow. And they are nearly certain to get it because Winslow is humble enough to recognize how much he still needs to learn, but also confident enough to believe that, in time, he absolutely will.

The presence of Winslow on the Heat roster is what made Thursday more palatable, even as Miami was without a 2016 draft pick. Its first-rounder was flipped as part of the sign-and-trade package for — ugh — newly minted three-time champion LeBron James way back in 2010. Its second-rounder was sacrificed in a Joel Anthony salary dump in 2014.

That makes it even more important that Winslow, Josh Richardson and — should they return as free agents — Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson continue to develop, to give Miami the sort of young core it hasn’t had since 2003-04. In Winslow’s first season, he played more minutes than all but two other rookies (Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell), and was the only rookie among the top seven in minutes to make the playoffs. Then he played the second-most playoff minutes of any rookie, second only to Richardson.

So, sure, June 25, 2015, seemed like long ago.

But not too long.

“It was an exciting day,” Winslow told the campers. “Probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. But it was fun. … I didn’t really know where I was going to go.”

Read Next

He didn’t go in the top five, where some pundits had projected him. Nor the top six. Nor seven. Then, needing a wing at No. 8, Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy took Winslow’s friend Stanley Johnson instead. Charlotte was up at nine. Little did Winslow, or the public, know at the time that Boston’s Danny Ainge was dangling a plethora of picks — as many as six — to the Hornets to slide up to select him. Or that, after Charlotte passed on that offer, and Winslow as well, to take Frank Kaminsky, the Celtics tempted the Heat with that same hefty pick haul.

Riley actually considered it, asking another official what do.

They all agreed no to the trade.

Yes to Winslow.

“I remember my whole agency team jumping up and telling me that I’m a lucky guy because I’m going to Miami,” Winslow said.

When he crossed the stage, “I just couldn’t stop shaking, I was smiling so hard, cheeks shaking and stuff.”

The Heat is still smiling, even if one of the six picks that Boston offered was No. 3 overall Thursday, with the Celtics ultimately taking Cal’s Jaylen Brown. The organization is enamored by his poise, rare for a man a decade older, not someone still not yet 21.

Consider what he told me on 790 The Ticket about seeming to take the playoff loss the hardest of all the Heat players: “For me, I’ve won at every level. In the past six years or so, I’ve only lost once, that was my junior year of high school. Other than that, I’ve won three state championships, national championship at Duke, three gold meals, so I’ve never really lost. … So it was just tough taking that loss, knowing that the season was over.”

The individual accolades are just beginning. He has been validated further, after several other snubs — including the Rising Stars game at All-Star weekend — with a spot on the U.S. Select Team that will push the U.S. Olympic team in Las Vegas in July. And yet, he has been open to playing in summer league in Orlando first.

Winslow doesn’t shy away from further burdens. Growing up, he always wanted to be the face of a franchise.

“And being part of an organization that over the past 10, 13 years has sort of been built around one guy, it’s just something to look forward to,” Winslow said. “I know there’s a lot of work to be done.”

He’s working not only on his shooting mechanics, but also his movement, “to be more explosive and make more plays off the dribble.” And yes, he sometimes gets encouragement from his college coach, Mike Krzyzewski, from whom he really gets emojis by phone. “It might be from his grandkids,” Winslow said. “But maybe like a flex and a basketball and a winky face or something.”

The Heat didn’t get better Thursday. Winslow still can. If he does, a winky face still fits.