In spite of Justise Winslow having an insane tournament run where he has consistently been the best player on the floor while looking like a cyborg amongst boys, it has not been a common reaction to discuss him as the #1 pick. He has elevated himself from a mid-late lottery pick to #6 ESPN and #5 DX, but has yet to gain any traction as a possible top 2 pick. This is likely because he was only the #13 RSCI player, and the top two candidate for #1 have been performing as advertised all season. It feels overreactive to suddenly elevate Winslow above them based on a few strong tournament games. This is normally an acceptable line of thought to prevent draft assessments from going off the rails, but Justise is special and deserves special consideration.
First it must be addressed why he was only the #13 RSCI recruit. DraftExpress’s pre-season video lists his weaknesses as perimeter shooting, offensive creation, and limited upside. Perimeter shooting lingers as a question mark, as Winslow has only shot 96/149 (64.4%) on FT and 23/89 (25.8%) on non-rim 2PA. But this is mitigated by his 45/108 (41.7%) 3 point shooting. While it is not a given that he will be an adequate 3 point shooter in the NBA, his odds are strong enough such that this is not a glaring red flag.
Offensive creation is an area where Winslow has clearly exceeded expectations. His ball handling still needs polish, but this has not stopped him from creating his own shot at the rim in the half-court. He combines his great first step with surprisingly smooth footwork to be one of the most productive wings at creating his own shot at the rim in the half-court in the draft. Using hoop-math.com’s splits, he has 30 unassisted rim FG (not including putbacks). Looking at last year’s class, his per minute rate exceeds that of most NCAA prospects in the draft, including all of the top 6 picks. The players who graded exceptionally well such as Jordan Clarkson, TJ Warren, and Elfrid Payton all appear to be good draft values, so I believe this is a relevant split to examine. Winslow’s freshman rate is comfortably behind the three of them, but they were all upperclassmen and it would not be surprising to see Winslow get to the rim with extreme frequency if he were to return as a sophomore. He clearly has significant upside as a slasher, especially if he can continue to improve his handle at a brisk rate.
The limited upside criticism has always felt overplayed to me to see for a player as young, toolsy, and skilled as Winslow, but I will nevertheless entertain the logic. He does not have great height/length for a SF (measured 6’6″ with a 6’10” wingspan at the Hoop Summit) and he was advertised as a good but not elite athlete. With a limited offensive skill set, it is understandable why he may have been seen as a 1 way defensive player. That said it is safe to dismiss the limited upside criticism with the promise he has shown as a slasher as well as his athleticism being better than advertised. He grades well athletically by every statistical measure from rebounds, steals, and blocks to rim creation and rim finishing splits. His athleticism also stands out by watching him play, especially with his monster transition defense.
I suspect that another factor plaguing Winslow’s upside perception is that there simply isn’t a superstar small forward that we can comfortably compare him to other than Kawhi Leonard who is much longer and a special snowflake that is generally an ill advised comp to make. On the other end, Chad Ford has been pitching Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a Winslow comparison which is an extremely pessimistic projection for two reasons.
1) MKG had good tools, but explosive athleticism was not one of them. Elite strength with average burst is a common mold for disappointing translation from NCAA to NBA.
2) MKG’s NCAA statistics imply some hope for capable NBA 3 point shooting, but he has only shot 3/18 beyond the arc in his first 3 seasons. If Winslow is a complete non-threat from 3 then yes he will be disappointing, but this is the rock bottom end of his range.
As a cherry on top, VJL’s EWP formula ranks Winslow (8.7) ahead of MKG (7.0) entering the final 4. Winslow should be a better NBA player than MKG the overwhelming majority of the time. There remains a lack of a suitable upside comparison as one does not exist, so instead of forcing one it is better to evaluate Winslow on his own merits:
-His overall NCAA statistics are excellent. As a freshman he is filling every predictive part of the stat sheet other than FT% and mid-range shooting.
-His second half splits are staggering as he battled minor injuries earlier in the season and also has clearly improved his game as the season has progressed.
-Most of his monster games have come against the meat of the ACC schedule and tough matchups in the NCAA tournament.
-His athleticism, strength, and quickness are all big +’s. Height and length are not great, but they are not weaknesses if he has grown a half an inch or more since the Hoop Summit.
-He offers an elite defensive IQ and versatility. This is supported by Duke having the #12 kenpom defense while featuring offensive minded players as his primary support in Quinn Cook, Jahlil Okafor, and Tyus Jones.
-His individual dominance has correlated with team success as Duke has been smashing its competition during his 2nd half hot streak.
In short, Winslow’s statistics put him within arm’s length of the #1 spot when taken at face value. Every possible reason to value his statistics differently suggests that stats underrate him when taken at face value– physical tools, defensive reputation, second half splits, splits vs. top competition, team success, and rim creation splits/skills all grade favorably for him. The only possible hole in his game is perimeter shooting, but he nevertheless has a sizable slice of equity to become an average or better NBA shooter. Winslow glows with awesomeness from every angle and his draft stock should be valued tremendously high. He is a prototypical high floor, high ceiling two way wing prospect who is deserves consideration for the #1 overall selection.
Justise does not necessarily belong ahead of Karl Towns, as high floor, high ceiling two way center prospects are good too, and it is genuinely close between the two. The more important point is that Winslow’s perception needs to be updated from a solid consolation prize in the 4-7 range to a legitimate stud who is one of the top top prizes in this year’s draft and a favorite to become an all-star at some point in his NBA career. He really is that good, and it is time to treat him as such.