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Justise Winslow has been gaining draft hype with an exceptionally strong NCAA performance, and I’m here to dump gasoline on the fire.

After losing at Notre Dame mid-way through the season, Duke looked like a slight disappointment with a 4-3 ACC record and a #8 kenpom rank after being rated top 5 preseason by every person and computer in the universe. But they followed up the Notre Dame loss with a win at then undefeated and 2nd ranked Virginia, the beginning of a vicious hot streak. Starting with the Virginia win, they have gone 16-1 with a 12-5 record against the gambling spread en route to a Final Four berth. If this hot streak were to be attributed a single reason, it would be that Justise Winslow has morphed into a superstar and put the team on his back. Here are his per 40 minute scoring splits with the first 20 games on the first line, and the latest 17 on the bottom line:

PTS 2PA 2P% 3PA 3P% FTA FT%
15.7 7.5 46.5% 5 37.3% 5.6 57.9%
18.7 9.8 55.7% 3.1 48.8% 4.7 69.4%

There is likely a variance involved in these splits, as it is unlikely that he suddenly became a much better shooter midway through the season. But he has upticked nevertheless, and his increase in both 2 pointer volume and with a huge spike in conversion is especially promising. Again there is variance involved as his early mid-range splits were horrific, but the fact that he has been able to increase his attempts against tougher defenses with such a big spike in 2P% suggests massive progression throughout the season. Now let’s look at his per 40 splits for other box score stats:

ORB DRB AST STL BLK TOV
1.4 5.2 2.7 1.3 0.9 2.4
2.2 8.7 3.2 2.4 1.4 2.6

Every stat is trending up, often by massive margins. It is common for freshmen to improve as the season progresses, but they normally do not see such massive statistical upswings because 1) competition tends to get tougher in the second half and 2) it is not normal to progress this much. For comparison, here are the splits for his freshman cohorts:

Jahlil Okafor:

PTS 2PA 2P% FTA FT%
24.6 15.2 66.2% 7.9 56.2%
21.2 14 67.5% 5.4 41.5%
ORB DRB AST STL BLK TOV
5.3 7.1 2.0 1.0 2.0 3.3
4.0 6.4 1.6 1.0 1.8 3.4

Tyus Jones:

PTS 2PA 2P% 3PA 3P% FTA FT%
14.4 5.0 47.4% 4.0 36.7% 5.9 88.9%
13.3 6.8 41.3% 3.6 37.9% 3.9 88.7%
ORB DRB AST STL BLK TOV
0.9 3.4 6.5 1.8 0.1 2.2
0.4 3.8 7.1 1.8 0.1 2.5

Both players tended to hold steady or slightly downtick with fewer weak opponents to feast upon. There is no obvious progression for either, which highlights how awesome Justise’s leap has been. It also suggests that the uptick in team success is largely due to his growth into a star.

It may seem overreactive to throw him into the top 3 discussion based on three great tournament games, but really this is an extension of a trend that has been ongoing for half a season now. Not only have his statistics been trending off the charts, but he looks like a beast while accruing them. The plays he makes on both ends in transition, on the glass, and in attacking the rim are plays that no NCAA player other than Kelly Oubre on a good day is physically capable of making. His physical profile is stellar with solid height (6’7″) and length (6’10”) and exceptional strength and athleticism, and if he continues to improve his ball handling and shot making there is not much impeding his upside.

At this point Winslow is at worst the 4th best prospect in the draft, and it would be nothing short of lunacy to take Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of him. Winslow’s physical tools are just as good as Mudiay’s, except he has dominated top end NCAA competition whereas Mudiay has played well in a league where 38 year old Stephon Marbury reigns supreme. It is highly unlikely that Mudiay would be notably better at the NCAA level, but possible that he would be drastically worse, so it is correct to value Winslow above him.

Winslow is still no threat to Towns at the #1 slot, but it is perfectly reasonable to take him at #2 or #3 overall. It may seem like insanity to value the 22 PER player over his 31 PER teammate who was the #1 RSCI prospect and has been the consensus #1 pick all season, but Winslow’s skill set is far more valuable at the NBA level. Jahlil Okafor is a stud low post scorer, but it comes at the expense of the neither 3 nor D stigma. This makes him difficult to build around since there are few stretch 4’s who are good enough to atone for Okafor’s rim protection shortcomings and pairing him with a rim protecting 5 prevents him from having optimal spacing to operate in the paint with maximum efficiency. I can see him becoming a more efficient version of Zach Randolph, which is certainly a valuable NBA player which is why I maintain him as a top 4 pick. But Zach Randolph was not considered good until paired with Marc Gasol who 1) is a good defensive center and 2) can make long 2’s and is a great passer from the high post. Even if he hits his upside, Okafor still needs to be paired with a fellow big with a unique blend of strengths to play a big role on a contender. Also his FT% looms as a major wart, as it bodes ill for his ability to operate outside the paint offensively.  If nothing else hurts his overall efficiency which is his principal selling point as a prospect.

In short, Okafor’s hype is based largely on scouts overrating the value of low post scoring, especially when it comes with neither rim protection nor outside shooting. While he has been as good as advertised, that is not good enough to be a top 3 pick in this class when he is such an awkward fit in the modern NBA.

This explains why the gap between Okafor (9.6) and Winslow (7.3) according to Layne Vashro’s EWP model was surprisingly slim entering the NCAA tournament. That gap should narrow given that Winslow has outshined Okafor thus far in the tourney. Further, if any player is underrated by EWP it is Winslow since he is far more athletic and has a significantly stronger split over the second half of the season. So according to math and logic and such, Okafor is at best is a narrowly superior prospect to Winslow. My gut feeling is that Winslow is a more valuable prospect that will become a more valuable pro. He is the player that I tune in to watch, he is the player with the killer physical profile, and he is the player that I would dream of building an NBA team around if he hits his upside.

I am unsure whether I take Winslow over Russell. I currently lean gently in the direction of D’Angelo, but Justise still has a game or two to change my mind. But more importantly, while watching the Final Four everybody should ask themselves: would you really be upset if you rooted for a team that picked Winslow over Okafor?

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