Do you know anyone that was simply born to do what they do for a living?
Justise Winslow is one of those people. Winslow is the youngest of a family filled with athletes. His older brother Josh was a football player at Dartmouth, his older sister Bianca was a basketball player at Houston. The Winslow name and University of Houston basketball are forever synonymous though due to Winslow’s father, Rickie, a member of the most famous fraternity outside of the Divine 9 - Phi Slama Jama - the renowned 1980’s Houston Cougars teams that made two NCAA Championship appearances led by Clyde Drexler and then named “Akeem” Olajuwon.
Then there was Justise, the youngest son of Rickie, growing up in the same city of Houston in which he looked to do the same as his father & shine on the hardwood. Star he did as he became one of the most highly sought after prep players in the country coming out of high school.
Athletics - and the overall pursuit of making it to the grandest stage - can reveal a lot about a person. From the wins and the losses to the injuries and setbacks, there are a lot of obstacles that are thrown your way on the journey to that stage and even more once you “make it.” The ones that “make it” are freaks of nature and the top 1% in their craft which, in a way, can cause them to lose their humanity to those that didn’t make it.
Winslow is one of those cases of “can’t win for losing” as obstacles have been thrown his way his entire NBA career. These trials have shaped his career.
From the day Justise Winslow stepped foot on the campus of St. John’s High School he was the one. Winslow was a four year starter at St. John’s starting AND ending his prep career with state championships. Winslow stuffed the stat sheet as a senior, averaging 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.1 blocks, and 1.8 steals to cap off his career and power his way to his second consecutive Gatorade Texas Player of the Year, Texas Mr. Basketball, and McDonald’s All-American honors. With a stat line like that, it should be no shock that Winslow was five-star recruit out of high school hovering around the top 10 in his class on all recruiting sites. Winslow had offers from a myriad of schools but ultimately settled on the Duke Blue Devils amongst a loaded recruiting class that featured future Grizzlies teammates Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen.
The success that Winslow was accustomed to followed him to Durham. Although his tenure at Duke was brief, Winslow did everything possible to up his stock and prove to NBA scouts he was ready for the NBA. Much like high school, he was immediately successful in a Blue Devil uniform as Coach K showered him with praise comparing him to former Duke stars Tommy Amaker and Grant Hill thriving in a point forward role as a freshman.
Winslow excelled under the brightest of lights as he averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds per game as he led the Duke Blue Devils to a 2015 National Championship and solidifying himself as a lottery pick in the upcoming draft. Nabbing All-ACC honorable mention honors after averaging 12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.3 steals over the course of 39 college games, Winslow decided it was time to make the leap to the next level.
Deconstruction and Hopeful Rise of Winslow
Justise Winslow was drafted 10th overall in the NBA Draft by a Miami Heat team looking to fill a LeBron James sized hole in their lineup after the breakup of “The Heatles.” With stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade still on the roster, the Heat were able to take their time with Winslow. He was eased into the rotation as he gradually became a starter that lived up to his stat sheet stuffer reputation before eventually evolving into a defensive stopper assigned to the opposing team’s best player. His level of play earned him NBA All-Rookie Second Team honors and left fans curious of what a more experienced form of Winslow would look like.
This is where the adversity truly begins.
His sophomore season was derailed by injuries. First, a sore left wrist then a torn labrum in his right shoulder January 2017, sidelined him the rest of the season. Winslow’s third and fourth seasons were a little more generous health wise but small strains and sprains once again kept him from a completely healthy season playing 68 and 66 games respectively. When he was healthy, Winslow was a project as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra deployed him in a variety of roles from starter and role player to every position from point guard to small ball center as he provided a type of versatility that could lead to a long NBA career in the modern NBA.
Just when it seemed like Winslow may operate a PJ Tucker/Kyle Anderson lite role in Miami more obstacles occur.
The 2019-20 season saw Winslow only play 11 games. A back strain and concussion originally sidelined him before a re-evaluation of the back injury caused an extended period of time. Disagreements on the severity of the injury between Winslow, staff, and the organization. While sidelined with the back injury, something that Winslow has called “one of the best things to happen in my life on and off the court,” happened as he was apart of the there-team deal that sent Andre Igoudala to Miami and landed Winslow in Memphis. With the season delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all signs pointed to him making his Memphis Grizzlies debut in the Orlando bubble before he was injured in practice. Winslow severely injured his hip requiring hip replacement surgery and adding another set back to his young career.
This brings us back to the point about athletes and their humanity. The last two injuries Winslow endured are probably related in some way or another. The human anatomy is funny like that. The injuries he has had to deal with the last two years are both foundational to every day life - especially in the case of the hip surgery. Post hip surgery - before you even think about making a basketball move - you have to re-learn practically every movement as the hip is fundamental to every aspect of life whether it be sitting, walking, or running. That’s before you even get to the intensive amount of jumping and cutting with contact required at basketball’s highest level.
Winslow has shown flashes of what he can be as a positive member of the Grizzlies future but, for the most part, he has still been trying to figure it out and has been objectively “bad” thus far. There’s a litany of stats and metrics I could list to pile on to the jeers and rants about him that have occurred over the last few weeks. But when you take a step back and look at the state of the story of Justise Winslow at this point of his career...what more can you expect? After two seasons in which he seemed to somewhat find his place in the league, he compounds two life altering injuries in which you have to completely alter how you operate as a human much less a basketball player. Professional athletes may be the elite of the elite lending to a super human element but they are still in fact human. When injuries like the one’s Winslow had happen, you should be reminded of that.
Winslow sat out an extended amount of time in order for the injury report to declare him “healthy.” This may be the case on the surface but the injuries he had take a year plus to FULLY heal and for someone to return to what they used to be - if they’re lucky. He may not be the answer right now. He may not be the answer long-term as the Grizzlies have a decision to make this offseason. The Memphis Grizzlies are ramping up for a playoff push that, for the most part, they achieved without him. But as they try to ingratiate him into the rotation and, to an extent, into the sport itself remember the backdrop of how he got to this point.
I doubt this will change the minds of those that have dug in to the vendetta against Winslow. Every night we actively watch him relearn the game of basketball with a body that is drastically different than the one from the beginning of the 2019-20 season. The guy is human and trying to figure it out. The trials of Justise aren’t over because obstacles will always exist - that’s life. That being said, don’t let the current stretch let you close the book on Winslow.
Injuries and wounds heal, Confidence returns and hopefully, with time, the Winslow that the Grizzlies believed they got in return for Andre Igoudala and Jae Crowder will return as well.