At this current moment, there is about as much evidence to the casual fan that Justise Winslow is a member of the Memphis Grizzlies as there is that the Apollo 11 mission actually went to the moon. Sure, people have talked about it, and there are pictures, but did you actually see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon with your own eyes? Have you actually seen Justise Winslow play for the Memphis Grizzlies outside of carefully-curated social media videos of practices?
All joking aside, it’s definitely a tad unsettling that Winslow has still not played a single minute for the Grizzlies in the 10 months after they traded Andre Iguodala to the Miami Heat for him. It may serve as some comfort that he’s expected to soon return from his latest injury, but there’s definitely a negative connotation to my usage of “latest”. Injuries have proven to be the bane (sorry Desmond) of his career to this point, as he has played less than 20 games in two of his five NBA seasons.
On the positive side, the talent is very much there. The Memphis Grizzlies have needed two-way playmakers on the wing since I was sucking on a binky, and Winslow certainly fits that mold. He can legitimately defend four positions and epitomizes the type of positionless basketball that Taylor Jenkins dutifully desires. If he can stay healthy and rediscover his form from the 2018-19 season in which he averaged career-highs of 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists while shooting 37% from three, then the Grizzlies’ wing-depth will likely jump a tier.
However, Winslow remaining healthy is a dicey proposition at best.
After watching Winslow baptize Ja Morant by fire with a superb 27 points, 7 assists performance in the season opener, I wondered whether he could take the next step in becoming a bonafide star. But it’s still unclear how much improvement, if any, that he made to his game because he began dealing with back issues soon after, which not only restricted him to just 11 games but also clearly hampered him when he did play. His raw production was still similar to his career year, but his efficiency fell off a cliff, as he shot just 38% from the field and 22% from three. As someone who has dealt with back issues during a basketball season before, I can tell you that his regression in efficiency is not a cause for concern; back issues affect everything.
Yet Winslow’s constant injuries apparently led the Heat to decide to go in another direction in complementing what soon proved to be a championship-level core. On February 6th, they traded him along with weed-gummy enthusiast Dion Waiters and former Grizzly James Johnson to Memphis for a washed Andre Iguodala along with Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill. The Grizzlies, of course, hoped that he would not only be a complementary piece to help make the playoffs, but also a quality young player that would fit well next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
The latter will hopefully still prove to be true, but the former was not meant to be, as Winslow suffered a hip injury that kept him out of the Orlando bubble and effectively ended his season.
Again, this is all contingent upon health, but I expect Winslow to start at the three as soon as he becomes available to play. Since the Grizzlies will have the choice to pick up his team option next summer, they likely want to have the best possible picture of how he fits next to the Grizzlies’ young stars as possible.
Even if he doesn’t start, which is very much a possibility since it appeared that he was going to come off the bench in Orlando, Winslow will still play in the ballpark of 25-30 minutes, and I expect him to often be in the Grizzlies’ closing lineups. Considering the Grizzlies depth at wing, that’s a testament to his talent and versatility.
To be sure, he will be empowered to be pivotal playmaker and crucial contributor for the Grizzlies as he was on several playoff teams in Miami.
Season Best Case Scenario
In an ideal world, Justise Winslow is everything the Memphis Grizzlies need and more. Versatile, physical wings that can thrive as secondary playmakers don’t just grow on trees in the NBA, and at 6’7”, 225 pounds, he certainly fits the bill.
To picture a fully-optimized Justise Winslow in the Grizzlies offense, it may be wise to compare him to De’Anthony Melton. Even though Melton significantly struggled at point guard in the bubble in the absence of Tyus Jones, he thrived for most of the season as a secondary playmaker both next to Jones and Ja Morant, feeding off the opportunities that their elite playmaking created. Now Winslow is obviously much bigger than Melton and is a better shooter and playmaker, especially since he excelled as the Heat’s starting point guard for several months during his breakout season in 2019.
In playing next to superb playmakers like Morant and Jones while being a quality complementary playmaker himself, Winslow may very well have the best offensive season of his career. He will receive more quality spot-up opportunities, of which he shot 41% on during the 2018-19 season, than he ever did in Miami, which may allow him to have the most efficient shooting season of his career. He will also be able slide into his more natural role of a secondary playmaker, as opposed to often being the Heat’s primary ball-handler.
As far as his stat-line is concerned, I could easily see him averaging 13-6-5 on 45-38-75 shooting splits, while also providing tenacious defense across four positions. For a more extensive breakdown on how the Grizzlies can unlock him, check my piece from July.
Season Worst Case Scenario
If you’ve been paying any attention at all, then you already know what the worst-case scenario for Justise Winslow in 2021 is. He very well may be unable to remain healthy and thus will be unable to have any truly tangible impact. And if he is unable to do so, then the Grizzlies will likely decline his team option for 2021-2022, making his time in Memphis less like Apollo 11 and more like the Challenger.
Like with most extremes, I believe the truth about Justise Winslow will be somewhere in between. I do believe that he will have an incorrigible impact on the Grizzlies this year; his delectable combination of size, playmaking, and positional versatility make him entirely too talented to not do so. And while I don’t think that he’ll complete the season without any bumps or bruises, I do believe that it’s a fair expectation for him to play in 55 of the Grizzlies’ 72 regular season games.
And when he does finally demonstrate that he is, in fact, a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, he will be fascinating to watch. He could prove to be the perfect complementary piece on the wing that the Grizzlies have been seeking. Or his body could fail him, and we may never get much of a chance to watch him at all.
Here’s to hoping for the former.