Years before Justise Winslow signed to play at Duke, he was most well-known for his famous father. “Everyone knew my dad,” says the Houston native. “It took a while for me to become ‘Justise Winslow’ rather than ‘Rickie Winslow’s son.’”
From 1983-87, Rickie Winslow balled at the University of Houston and was a member of the Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity before he played professionally in the NBA and around the world. As if having a local legend father wasn’t enough, Justise grew up the youngest in a family full of athletes. His sister Bianca is a junior guard at the U of H, and his brother Josh suits up for the football team at Dartmouth. Even in their shadows, Winslow’s talent and 6-6, 225, man-sized frame eventually became impossible to ignore.
As a senior at the lesser-known St. John’s HS in Houston, Winslow put up gaudy averages of 27.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.5 apg and 2.1 bpg and earned an invite to the McDonald’s All-American Game. Winslow was a consensus five-star recruit and joined Duke’s loaded 2014 class one week after Coach K secured arguably the biggest recruiting haul of his storied career when point guard Tyus Jones and center Jahlil Okafor announced they were heading to Durham as a package deal.
Winslow was projected to come in as a defensive specialist with a raw offensive game to play alongside the other high-profile pieces Coach K had in play. But after Duke jumped out to a 5-0 start, it was Winslow whom scouts were raving about. Out of nowhere, he’d jumped from a nice complementary piece to a potential Lottery pick. While the media and fans played catch up getting familiar with the lefty guard, his teammates already knew what he was capable of.
As high schoolers, Winslow, Jones and Okafor formed a close bond while winning Gold for USA Basketball at the U19 World Championship in 2013 and the U17 World Championship in 2012. As opponents, Jahlil and Justise’s head-to-head battles date back to middle school. “Me, [Winslow] and Jah are extremely close,” says Jones. “He’s like a brother to me. We’re always joking around with each other off the court. He’s a funny guy, that’s for sure. I love him.”
Okafor, who is a favorite for National Player of the Year and projected to be the No. 1 pick in this year’s Draft, believes that Winslow is the key for the 28-3, No. 2-ranked Blue Devils heading into mid-March. “He brings everything to the court,” says Okafor. “Everyone on this team believes we will go as far as he takes us. He’s a warrior. He’s our best defender. He does everything for this team.”
The toughness Okafor speaks of has its roots in Winslow’s Houston upbringing. When he wasn’t fighting off his siblings or playing hoops against the older kids in the neighborhood, he was on the football field. In middle school Winslow decided to give up football for basketball full-time, but the instincts he learned on the gridiron carried over. Winslow flies around the court and brings a rare physicality to the game. “My ability to get to the basket and create plays with my body, athleticism and physicality is the best part of my game,” says Winslow. “I can get in the lane and finish or penetrate and be a playmaker in the lane.”
Defensively, Winslow can guard four positions, and when he picks off a pass or grabs a rebound and gets on the break, he looks more like Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor than James Harden as he knifes his way through the defense at full speed. Once at the hoop, the lefty can finish with such ferocity that his impact is akin to a linebacker crushing a slot receiver coming over the middle.
His aggressiveness led to his hot start, but Winslow battled injuries through January, causing his averages to dip to 11.3 ppg and 5.3 rpg. Winslow reasserted himself in big wins over Virginia (15 and 11) and Notre Dame (19 and 11).
Once a weak position, the NBA has seen a resurgence in quality shooting guards. While he needs work on his jumper and ballhandling, Winslow’s abilities and ambitions fall in line with some of the L’s new-aged 2s. “I try to mimic DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler,” says Winslow. “Those guys get after it and play a little more defense. They are total playmakers and have all-around games. Whatever I can learn from them and instill in my game will make me a better player.”
Before he decides whether to make the leap to the NBA or stay in college, Winslow has work left to do. This year’s Duke team is more balanced than the Jabari Parker-led squad that got bumped in the first round of last season’s Tournament, with a real shot at making it to the Final Four.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to make it to the NBA,” says Winslow. “Right now I’m a college kid just trying to have fun while I’m here and help Duke win a Championship. As a kid playing basketball, that’s always your dream. I’m trying to stay in the moment and enjoy my time for now.”
Peter Walsh is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @Peter_M_Walsh.