Before I get too controversial, let’s get one thing clear: Justise Winslow is not Chandler Parsons, if for no other reason than because of circumstances.
The Grizzlies signed Parsons to a max 4-year, $94 million deal in the hopes that he would be a third star next to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Yet with Winslow, the Grizzlies attained him by taking part in a low-risk, high-reward investment in which they traded away two veterans who weren’t a part of the future and essentially surrendered their cap space for a weak 2020 free agency class.
If for whatever reason they decide Winslow isn’t a part of the core going forward, they can either not pick up his team option for next year or not extend him after the 2021-22 season. Obviously, the front office is high on him and want him to become a core piece. But they never intended for him to be a third star next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. That was never a possibility because he simply isn’t that kind of player.
The kind of player that Winslow is—a multi-positional defender who can thrive as a secondary playmaker—is one that can definitely be useful to the Grizzlies. But while his situation isn't as harmful to the Grizzlies as Parsons was, he’s arguably been even worse as a player in a 16-game sample size than Parsons was in a 34-game sample size in his first year in Memphis. In his time on the court this year, he trends behind 2016-17 Parsons in almost every single shooting category as well as almost all advanced stats. If you remember how Chancun Parsons’ tenure went in Memphis, this is pretty concerning.
However, context is important. Whereas Parsons looked broken, Winslow has in many ways looked merely rusty, as he has still generally provided value as a plus-defender and ball-handler. He has looked fine as far as his general movement and athleticism is concerned, which considering his past hip and back issues, is very encouraging.
It’s his shooting that has fallen off a cliff, as I would argue that an NBA wing shooting 12% from three would be unreasonably bad even if they were missing an arm and a leg. But to be fair, Winslow was never supposed to be a shooter; he shot 37% from three on 3.9 attempts per game during the 2018-19 season, which has been his only true good shooting season since high school. To put it bluntly, that season was a mirage and shouldn’t be considered an accurate picture of what Winslow will be going forward. He spent most of his time at point guard because of an injury to Goran Dragic, and he was able to find the best scoring/shooting rhythm of his career while posting the highest usage of his career. There’s a definite correlation there.
With the variety of skilled ball-handlers and playmakers that the Grizzlies have, Winslow will never dominate the ball in Memphis like he did in Miami. He will probably never be a particularly impactful scorer or shooter. But he still brings plenty to the table that can allow him to be an impactful player for the Grizzlies once he does finally shake all the rust off.
And I do generally think that Winslow will shake the rust off more and more over time, and I suspect that a fully healthy offseason will do wonders for him going into next year. The list of players currently in the league who have missed a similar amount of time to Winslow at some point in their careers is extremely small (it’s really rare for a guy to have another significant injury right before he was supposed to come back from a previous significant injury). But the players on that list like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant—granted, generational talents who had entirely different injuries—have been able to round back into form. Wesley Matthews was still able to be an effective player after missing a similar amount of time due to tearing his achilles.
Again, health doesn’t appear to be an issue for Justise Winslow. He is struggling because of a rusty skill-set, not his body. And there is recent historical precedent to suggest that he hasn’t entirely forgotten how to play basketball after being out of the game for over 400 days.
So is there reason to be concerned? Sure. He is not a rotation-level player offensively for the Grizzlies right now, and he’s actively hurting them on that end by being on the court. It was fair to expect him to be rusty, but I also think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t expected to be this bad. If he doesn’t start to progress to the mean over the next few weeks, then it might become fair to wonder if he is still suffering from any lingering physical issues that are affecting his offensive rhythm and causing him long-term consequences.
After all, rusty pipes can become so rusty and corroded that they can start to contaminate the water that runs through them. They can become so rusty that they are now useless and harmful.
With that being said, it’s also literally impossible that Winslow continue to shoot this ball poorly. He and Ja Morant have waged a courageously painful battle against math from beyond the arc this season, but the law of averages will (hopefully) come into play at some point. When that happens, Winslow will steadily start to settle into being the versatile playmaker that he is, which will only give him momentum going into next season.