This column was originally posted on Slice Miami
Averaging just 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds, Justise Winslow‘s box score may not be opening any eyes. Gloss over his shooting percentages (40% FG, 23% 3FG) and it might be closing them.
Yet Winslow should already be considered a legitimate Rookie of the Year contender because of his play beyond the box score, more specifically for his meteoric rise as a defensive stopper.
All season we’ve seen Erik Spoelstra call on Winslow, the NBA’s third youngest player, to defend the most lethal attackers in the Association, from LeBron James to James Harden. The 19-year-old Dukie with the frizzled fro has not only been up for the challenge but has shattered expectations. We saw it again when Winslow put a lid on Paul George in Miami’s overtime win last night.
Exhibit A – Can’t Pick Me Now
Situation: Miami is down two with 3:45 remaining
Winslow shows off his ability to absorb screens, stay down on the pump fake and disrupt the shot.
The way he bounces off screens set by chiseled NBA big men is remarkable considering he’s so young, he may not be done growing. Remember when Chris Bosh was quoted as saying Winslow has the body of one of his uncles? This is where that applies.
Bosh on Winslow: "He's the oldest rookie I know. He's got the body of one of my uncles. He comes in there with hair on his chest." #Heat
— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) October 29, 2015
Come at Justise, you best not miss.
Exhibit B: Quick Feet
Situation: Miami’s up a point with 50 seconds and change remaining
Winslow slithers past another attempted screen as Bosh shows some passive help just in case. The rookie halts penetration by cutting off George’s path to the rim, forcing him into a highly contested corner three.
Exhibit C – Closer
Situation: Miami’s up three with seconds remaining in overtime
Here’s the last play of the game — same matchup. Winslow knows the Pacers need a three and he sticks to George like a fly on shit, forcing him into a contested three from the corner.
This was just a taste of Winslow’s defensive performance but we can go on all day dating back to the first week of the season.
Pacers players (often George) shot just 3 of 16 (19%) from the field when defended by Winslow, per NBA.com. No coincidence. He’s been holding opponents to a lackluster 37-percent shooting on the season, about six percent lower than their average. Specific to the perimeter, opponents convert just 26 percent of their threes against Winslow, just under 10 percent lower than their average.
Want more? Winslow’s defensive rating of 94.6 (points per 100 possessions allowed with a player on the court) ranks sixth in NBA for players averaging at least 25 minutes. He trails only players on the Spurs and Warriors, representing the two best defenses in basketball.
One of the things that irks me when hearing people talk about the NBA is the notion that playing quality defense is based purely on effort. While effort is a necessity to play great defense, it’s only a small part of what makes an elite defender operate. It’s a skill no different than shooting or dribbling, only it’s more difficult because it’s ingrained to the mind as well.
Months into his professional career and Winslow already fully comprehends the art of defense — the angles on the court, where the help is coming from, when to contest, playing aggressive without fouling, navigating around screens, etc. He’s also in the perfect situation, with an organization built on getting stops and a plethora of two-way stars (some aging) around him.
What Darrelle Revis is for the Jets, Justise Winslow is becoming for the Heat. Put the rookie on an island against the opposing team’s best attacker and he’ll hold his own. Even when his matchup thrives, as LeBron did way back in October in Justise’s second game, you could immediately see he was making things tough on him. Sometimes greatness is gonna be great and there’s nothing a defender can do about it.
This is solid defense by Justise Winslow on LeBron, but it's Bron so… https://t.co/3p9vAxzPX2
— Brian Fleurantin (@BrFleurantin) October 30, 2015
Winslow’s shooting has been a work in progress but the team doesn’t depend on it to win games. Shooting better than 24 percent on threes — most of them without a defender in sight — would go a long way towards maximizing the Heat’s offensive efficiency but he’s not logging 27 minutes a night for his scoring. He also has proven to be a capable passer and finisher in transition. Whether he can become a dynamic player on that end is too early to tell, especially on a team where he’s merely a secondary option. But 31 games in and we already know he’s a special defensive player.
Justise Winslow, a 19-year-old rook, already might be the Miami Heat‘s best defender and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes one of the most feared stoppers in the NBA.
Follow Josh on Twitter @JoshBaumgard