This much is a fact: The Miami Heat are 19.4 points per 100 possessions better when rookie Justice Winslow is on the court rather than off.
While Winslow is not putting up “look at me” Rookie of the Year numbers, he’s been a key bench figure for one of the better teams in the East. What’s impressive has been that it’s not his offense that is drawing raves (like most rookies), rather his defense has blown people away. From the brilliant Cooper Moorehead of the Miami Heat:
“He’s confusing me,” Chris Bosh said. “You always want to be easy on the rooks and everything, but he’s raising the bar. With his maturity, ability and his knack to play defense, I’ve never seen anything like it as long as I’ve been in this league from a rookie….”
The secret behind Winslow’s current status as a Plus-Minus Hero is that with the current rotation, his entrance into the game signals Miami’s shift to small, pace-and-space lineups. Against Toronto on Sunday, Winslow was the first sub after about five minutes of play. Instead of coming in for Dwyane Wade or Luol Deng as you might expect, Winslow pointed at Chris Bosh. Deng proceeded to slide down to the power forward spot – none of this is possible without his flexibility – defending Luis Scola. With Hassan Whiteside, Miami had engaged it’s one of its one-big lineups.
Miami’s depth, its space-and-pace lineups, have been incredibly impressive this young season. And we are talking about the number savvy Heat — if it works, you will see a lot more of it.
Tuesday night Winslow and the Heat will take on the Lakers, and plenty of Los Angeles fans will look at the guy they passed over in the draft and turn green with envy (especially when he ends up matched on Kobe Bryant). They shouldn’t. At least not yet. We don’t know how good D'Angelo Russell will be, we need a couple full seasons to have that discussion (he was the No. 2 pick, Winslow was No. 10). That despite how we can question how Byron Scott is developing the young Laker. The Heat are putting their rookie in a position to succeed, something we can debate if the Lakers are doing (maybe more than just debate).
For Heat fans, you need to be excited. Traditionally, the offense comes around for rookies fairly quickly, the defense takes time. For Winslow, the pattern is reversed, but his offense is improving and he is looking like a steal at No. 10. And watch his defense — he is a rookie who can cause this Kobe Bryant trouble.