Justise Winslow returned to the basketball court Wednesday, which means the Miami Heat can resume drawing its blueprint with Winslow as one of the team’s pillars.
Or, at the very least, the Heat can resume collating answers on the Winslow question, which is: How good can this kid be?
Winslow missed 16 games with a sprained wrist and lost a precious month of time toward proving he can be an all-around player and an asset on offense.
He looked tentative and rusty, of course, but made key contributions as the Heat held on to defeat the Indiana Pacers, 95-89, and win its second game in a row at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Winslow in uniform was a sight for sore eyes on this bruised team, the most injured in the NBA. Everyone else was available, too, except Dion Waiters, still out with a groin strain. Now that the 9-17 Heat has regained some depth, it can begin clawing up to a .500 record.
Winslow took the floor late in the first quarter and made his second attempt, a 22-footer. His left, shooting wrist was wrapped in black tape. He did his job on defense, keeping Paul George in check.
In the fourth quarter, when the Heat held the Pacers to 10 points on 28 percent shooting, Winslow was more aggressive. He missed on a fast-break layup opportunity, then was stripped by Aaron Brooks as he drove the lane. But he made up for it on the next possession, stealing a pass and flinging the ball to Tyler Johnson for a layup, an 82-79 lead and a huge cheer from the crowd.
“He played so well, calm and collected, that I didn’t realize when he was out of the game,” said James Johnson, who gave the Heat a lift with 14 points and six assists. “He was in shape. He was moving the ball. He knew where to be on every play. It’s like he was at every practice with us, and he hasn’t been.”
Winslow finished with a modest two points on 1-for-5 shooting with two assists and one turnover in 20 minutes, 39 seconds. He missed both of his free-throw attempts.
“I could play a lot better, but it was good to be back out there and help the team win,” Winslow said. “I didn’t really get in a rhythm, so I don’t know that I could tell if I was rusty or not.”
He’ll need patience to recover his stroke as he recovers from a painful wrist injury that the Heat hopes will not require eventual surgery.
The question remains, however: How reliable can his stroke become?
Winslow was shooting a lousy 34 percent from the field and 22 percent from three-point range in the nine games he played before he was sidelined. The wrist problem was a factor. But Winslow has to show that he’s a better shooter than he was as a rookie, when he shot 42 percent from the field and 27.6 percent on threes while averaging 6.4 points.
Winslow possesses the defensive mentality, energy and edginess that is a Heat trademark under Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra. He’s got high basketball IQ from his father, former Houston Phi Slamma Jamma player Rickie Winslow, and from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. He’s able to orchestrate plays and “put his fingerprints on the game,” as Spoelstra said.
But in the post-Dwyane Wade era, with Chris Bosh listed on the roster as I (for inactive and invisible), Winslow has got to be multi-dimensional. He’s got to be a threat on the attack. He’s got to create and score. He doesn’t have to be Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook, but he’s got to develop as a shooter.
The Heat has two essential ingredients as it searches for a new identity: an ascending point guard in Goran Dragic and a maturing center in Hassan Whiteside.
Dragic has been hot, averaging 23.6 points in December until he cooled to just 11 points with five turnovers against the Pacers. He scored a career-high 34 points against Washington on Monday. Dragic seems to be finding his footing and playing fearlessly at a high speed. Spoelstra said Dragic, as unimposing as he appears, has more touches in the paint than anyone on the team.
“It was not pretty,” Dragic said of the win. “But when it mattered we locked down. We played awesome defense and got rebounds.”
Whiteside is becoming the face of the Heat. He helped beat the Pacers with 26 points and 22 rebounds, and the Heat’s 58-38 rebound margin was the largest of the season. He was aggressive and nosy around the rim and grabbed six offensive boards. His putbacks frustrated the Pacers. Indiana coach Nate McMillan said the 7-0 Whiteside is “so long that he had our guys pushed under the rim.”
“Hassan is a monster,” Johnson said. “He is a lot to handle, and I feel sorry for the big guys who have to wrestle that man for 48 minutes.”
But the third component of the Heat, the third option, remains a blank yet to be filled.
Winslow is the player the Heat wants and expects to rise into that role. Riley turned down six tempting picks from the Boston Celtics when he stuck with the 6-7 Winslow as his first choice at No. 10 in the 2015 NBA Draft.
With continued talk of a Dragic trade — which would be a mistake, given Dragic’s productivity and leadership at a bargain rate for a top point guard — Winslow has to step forward.
He’s only 20 years old. He was the third-youngest player in the NBA to start on Opening Night. He’s a work in progress, and the Heat loves his upside.
But the league isn’t kind to late bloomers. Ask Whiteside. The Heat is struggling to blaze a new path with a reconstituted roster of unfamiliar names, and Winslow can no longer play a waiting game. He has to make up for lost time.