Justise Winslow is set to play an important role for the Portland Trail Blazers this season. At a sturdy 6’6, Winslow has the ability to do a number of things at a position that this Blazers team has been lacking for the better part of a decade.
The 26-year-old enjoyed a spike in playing time after being dealt to the Blazersalongside Keon Johnson and Eric Bledsoe, for Norman Powell and Robert Covington in February.
Limited to only 11 games in Blazers colors — as the franchise overtly tanked down the standings — Winslow showed skills and veteran composure, able to compete on both sides of the ball, starting and playing almost 27 minutes a night. Probably a nice perk after barely seeing the floor on the then still-contending Los Angeles Clippersrestricted to a lowly 12.9 minutes a contest.
This coming season, the leftie will return to the Moda Center in a contract year, offering the Blazers a unique combination of size, speed, defense and ballhandling from the power forward position.
Through his first six seasons with the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzliesthe former Duke standout played the majority of his minutes at small forward with a smattering of shooting guard and power forward.
But last season, perhaps through the realization that he wasn’t the best shooter in the association, he was pushed predominantly to the four with moments at the five.
This was a correct adjustment with the former ninth pick unable to raise his three point shooting average above 30 percent since the 2018-19 season. He is, however, built like a “brick s&*^house” — an Australianism meaning solidly built — while still being nimble enough to guard some of the best and biggest wings in the league.
Winslow is one of the most trusted NBA forwards with the ball in his hands. Boasting a tight handle, above-average passing chops and natural court awareness, the former lottery pick should be able to help primary facilitators Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons and Josh Hart play off the ball for stretches.
He’s done it before. While playing a shade under 30 minutes a game with the Heat in 2018-19, Winslow was able to average 4.3 assists on 2.2 turnovers on the then re-tooling Heat franchise. And while injury might have slowed him down ever so slightly, last season’s play showed that he was still able to get down hill, dribble through traffic and either finish or facilitate in traffic.
On February 9, mere days after arriving in Portland, Winslow was tasked with guarding LeBron James in an unlikely Blazers win against the old foe Los Angeles Lakers.
While James still had an impact on the game, the Blazers probably wouldn’t have prevailed without Winslow who registered four steals while keeping a positive plus/minus despite his minutes on the Taco Tuesday fan.
His defensive chops come from innate basketball smarts, that large frame and impressively quick feet, helping him stay in front of the likes of James. His short stint in Portland also produced his highest steal percentage at 1.7.
So while a lack of shooting will restrict Winslow from playing small forward on offense, he’ll comfortably be able to guard positions three-through-five, a kind of versatility Damian Lillard and co. have been lacking in recent years.
His place in the rotation
The Blazers actually have depth at the power forward position after years of cycling through the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu, Robert Covington, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Tolliver, Noah Vonleh, Zach Collins, Skal Labbisere, Wenyen Gabriel and Jaylen Hoard.
Jerami Grant was brought to Portland from the Detroit Pistons to start at the four and has the ability and athleticism to start, compete and succeed on both sides of the floor.
Behind him sits Winslow and Trendon Watford, two players who are ready to play minutes, offering a range of abilities to this now versatile squad. Greg Brown III and Jabari Walker are also fours but are unlikely to initially see time. Like Watford, Winslow can toggle between the four and the five, thanks to smarts, energy and length, but probably not as much athleticism.
Good thing too, because with Jusuf Nurkic being the only full-sized center on the roster, Winslow, Grant and Watford, and in desperate situations, Drew Eubanks will be called upon to play at the two bigger positions.
The only real competition both Winslow and Watford may need to worry about is second-round rookie Walker. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. For now, Winslow will have around 20 minutes a night to ply his trade off the pine.
Winslow is in a contract year, which means he’s playing for his next payday. And for a guy initially billed as a highly touted prospect — apparently the Boston Celtics were prepared to give up four potential first-rounders to snag him in 2015 — he’s yet to earn any big time money.
Much of this is due to his injury history and every minute since the Heat traded him to the Grizzlies. Next season could be his best chance to rekindle those early years and deliver on the promise he showed at Duke and the lottery selection that followed. Sure, he’ll be coming off the bench, but he’ll be given every opportunity to earn that next contract.
But whether he finishes the season in Portland remains to be seen with General Manager Joe Cronin cognizant of the fact that Winslow’s $4 million expiring deal may be able to return something as part of a larger transaction at the deadline.
While many still see the Blazers’ deal with the Clippers as a loss, the more time that passes, the more the trade actually helps this franchise. In return for Covington who was unlikely to return and a bloated Norman Powell contract, Portland got a second round pick, cap space, Eric Bledsoe, a young and promising prospect in Johnson and a savvy veteran in Winslow who is likely to prove important this season or as a piece in a future trade.
I’m an unabashed Winslow fan. I’d actually eyed him as a hopeful Blazers target last offseason before he landed in Los Angeles. While Winslow’s lack of shooting will probably deprive him of big-time minutes, he is still a valuable, young asset.
For this team he’ll capably be able to relieve Portland’s prime movers of facilitating duties while providing pretty much everything the roster needs that isn’t long-range shooting.