Very few become great at anything overnight.
When the Miami Heat drafted Justise Winslow in 2015, he was merely a raw 19-year-old prospect that provided little more than the defensive versatility that his roughly 6’7, 220 pound frame would allow him to possess. Unfortunately, the next few years were not kind to him from a developmental standpoint, as he saw little to no progress in his efficiency (he shot an absurdly terrible 38% on two-point shots and an awful 47% at the rim in an injury-shortened 2016-17 season) or his scoring (he averaged only a meager 7.8 points during the 2017-18 season).
However, it was during the 2018-19 season, Winslow’s fourth year in the league, that he started to finally become the versatile playmaker on both sides of the ball that scouts envisioned when he came out of Duke.
Goran Dragic only played 36 games that season due to injury, and Winslow became the Heat’s starting point guard in his absence. He thrived as the primary initiator of the Heat’s offense, showcasing improved scoring and efficiency (career-high 12.4 points per game on career-highs of 43% shooting and 38% from three), while also demonstrating impressive playmaking chops as he averaged a career-high 4.3 assists. His size and defensive versatility also allowed the Heat to indulge in positionless basketball with him at the helm of the offense.
He was, of course, traded to the Memphis Grizzlies after only playing 11 games for the Heat this year due to injury. Now, Justise Winslow has one more developmental leap to take to become everything that he was ever envisioned to be. And the Memphis Grizzlies are ideally constructed to empower him to do so.
For Winslow, there are two areas of his offensive game that have kept him from reaching his full potential on that end of the court: shooting and finishing.
Outside of the 2018-19 season (more on this season in a minute), he has never really been able to find consistent comfort as a three-point shooter. He did shoot a career-high 38% from beyond the arc during the 2017-18 season, but it was hardly impactful since he only attempted 1.9 threes per game. After all, efficiency doesn’t particularly matter if a player doesn’t display a consistent willingness to shoot that forces defenses to react to them.
And from an efficiency standpoint as a whole, he has never been able to shoot better than 43% from the field in a season primarily because he has been a relatively poor finisher at the rim for a player of his size and athleticism. Even during his best statistical season, he shot 55% at the rim, which ranked 77th among the 122 players who averaged at least the amount of shots at the basket as he did (3.7).
But even with all of that in mind, I expect Justise Winslow’s shooting ability to be maximized as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, and I also expect him to be more efficient than he has ever been before.
Even though he regressed somewhat in the 11 games that he played with a nagging back issue this year, Winslow demonstrated during the 2018-19 season that he can be an above-average shooter in the right situation. He maintained his 38% three-point accuracy from the previous season but also attempted a healthy 3.9 attempts per game. Even better: he did so while spending significant time as the team’s primary ball-handler with Dragic out, which naturally increased the amount of threes that he attempted off the dribble. Pull-up threes are obviously less efficient than catch-and-shoot threes, and Winslow was no exception to that fact; he shot a putrid 16% on pull-up threes and a superb 41% on catch-and-shoots.
So the fact that Winslow was able to shoot 38% from three on solid volume while spending significant time as a primary playmaker is even more encouraging when you consider that Taylor Jenkins will rarely use him as a primary playmaker on a team filled to the brim with superb playmakers like Ja Morant, Tyus Jones and even De’Anthony Melton. He will play off the ball far more in Memphis than he did in Miami the last two years, which means he will receive more catch-and-shoot opportunities while reducing his more inefficient pull-ups.
I would not at all be surprised to see Winslow shoot 40+ percent from three in Orlando or next season with playmakers like Morant and Jones setting him up for open looks in Jenkins’ motion offense. He has thrived in catch-and-shoot situations, and the Grizzlies will maximize that skill.
Jenkins’ modern “let it fly” offense should also not just improve Winslow’s accuracy, but also his volume from beyond the arc. The Jenkins Effect can be clearly seen throughout the Grizzlies roster: Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill, and even Kyle Anderson among others all had the highest 3PT-attempt rate of their careers this year. 34% of Winslow’s shot attempts were threes during the 2018-19 season. If he can raise that number closer to 40-45% while still using his combination of size and explosiveness to get to the rim, then he will mathematically raise his overall ceiling as a shooter and scorer.
To be sure, there’s also plenty of reason to believe that Winslow will improve in finishing at the rim, even if that may never be his greatest strength. Again, he will be playing with the two best pure point guards that he has ever played with in Ja Morant and Tyus Jones, which will create opportunities for him going to the basket that he has mostly otherwise had to create for himself in the past (look no further than Josh Jackson to see how playing with elite passing point guards in a successful modern offense can benefit a player’s efficiency at the rim). The spacing that the Grizzlies’ ball movement-heavy offense provides should also provide clearer lanes to the basket for Winslow to finish.
In his first few years in the league, Justise Winslow was a raw, clearly unfinished reflection of the player that he could eventually become. For a long period of time, it appeared that scouts may have misjudged his potential and the Miami Heat may even give up on him, judging by the trade rumors that once surrounded his name.
And make no mistake: the Heat did choose to give up on Winslow, believing that a package of Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill would be more helpful to their title chances than the oft-injured Winslow.
Justise Winslow has a chance to be everything that everyone once envisioned him to be and more in Memphis if his body holds up—a positionless, playmaking wing that can provide steady shooting just as much as he can tenacious defense. And if the Grizzlies do fully unlock him, then the Miami Heat will surely live to regret their lack of patience.