SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
What’s the quickest way for the Heat to become a legitimate championship contender, outside of the unlikely acquisition of Kevin Durant in free agency this summer?
If Justise Winslow, drafted 10th, can somehow become as impactful, or nearly as impactful, as Kawhi Leonard (selected 15th) or Paul George (10th) or Draymond Green (35th).
Whether Winslow can progress to their level is obviously impossible to predict. But at least one Heat star insists Winslow can be a star if he improves his jumper. And remember, nobody could have predicted Leonard or Green, off their rookie seasons, would be nearly as good as they've become.
Winslow is already Miami’s best defender, according to NBA TV’s Grant Hill, and his nine rebounds, four assists, two steals and stout defense on Jimmy Butler in Chicago on Monday, followed by 6-for-7 shooting Tuesday in Brooklyn, were a reassuring reminder of his diverse, dynamic skill set. All week, he showed an ability to facilitate, to bring the ball up the court at times, and get the Heat into offense when needed.
Players he guards this season are shooting 41.6 percent, compared to 43.7 overall, and Miami has outscored teams by 52 with Winslow in the game, compared to a negative-97 with Luol Deng on the court.
The big question, of course, is whether Winslow can fix what has been his glaring shortcoming: perimeter shooting. What we’ve seen the last week has been encouraging.
What if he develops a consistent jump shot?
“Then he could be one of the best players in the league,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “He has that type of talent. One of the best two-way players that he can possibly be. His upside is huge. That’s the last frontier for him.”
Winslow struggled through an 18-game stretch, ending with the Jan. 12 Clippers game, in which he shot 29 for 81 and made at least half his shots only twice in 18 games. Since then (entering Friday), he was 22 for 46 and 7 for 15 on threes.
“I know I’m a capable shooter; I shot 41 percent on threes [with a shorter three-point line at Duke],” he said, adding he’s receptive to subtle technique tweaks that Heat coaches have suggested. “But obviously, I’m not consistent enough. I have to keep repetition, repetition and shooting with confidence.”
Teams have been sagging off him, with Nuggets coach Mike Malone admitting that “lately you see a lot of teams trying to hide their [centers] on a guy like Winslow and guarding Bosh with a smaller, more versatile defender.”
Here’s what’s encouraging: Winslow is only 19, having played just one year in college, and there is considerable precedent for significant increases in shooting percentages. As a shooter, Winslow is further along as a rookie than another 6-7 defensively-skilled forward was at a similar stage: Golden State’s Green, who was named an All-Star on Thursday.
As a 22-year-rookie, Green shot 84 for 257; Winslow so far is 95 for 233 (40.8 percent).
Green shot 14 for 67 on threes as a rookie. Winslow is 22 for 83 (26.5 percent).
In his four seasons, Green has boosted his overall shooting percentage from 32.7 to 40.7 to 44.3 to 47.5. On threes, he has ascended from 20.9 to 33.3 to 33.7 to 41.4 percent this season.
“For [Winslow] to take the next step and be talked about, Draymond Green has become that guy you should look at and say, ‘I want to develop my game like that,’” ABC's Doug Collins told me off the air.
Though Leonard was a much better shooter than Winslow as a rookie (49.3 percent), the Spurs’ standout has lifted his three-point accuracy from 37.6 then to an NBA-leading 48.8 now. George’s three-point percentage rose from 29.7 as a rookie to 38.1 now. As rookies, both scored about two points more per game than Winslow.
Winslow also can look inside the Heat organization at director of college and pro scouting Keith Askins, who shot 29.8 on threes his first five seasons (78 for 262) but 41.1 percent (168-409) the next two.
“Shooting is a skill; through working on your shot, breaking down your shot, if you really dedicate yourself, you can improve it,” said Malone, whose team might have drafted Winslow at No. 7 if Emmanuel Mudiay hadn’t been available. “The best example is a guy like Jason Kidd. Jason Kidd came in and was a non-shooter. [Late in] his career, he was 40 percent from three.
“Justise just has to commit to putting the time in the gym, getting the reps up, and he will become a better shooter because of that. I like his athleticism, his versatility, his defensive ability and potential. The kid has a hell of a future.”
Winslow is shooting just 31.7 percent on shots beyond two feet (45 for 162) compared with 55.8 percent at the rim. Though a veteran scout said Winslow’s shot is “broken,” Collins disagrees.
“I don’t think a bad shooter becomes a great shooter but he can become an adequate shooter,” Collins said. "[Winslow] has to make the commitment. Is his shot broke? Is it something he has to totally break down? I don’t think it’s broken.
“It’s a shot you can continue to tweak. It’s repetition and repetition and repetition. He can put the ball on the floor. He has a high motor. But the game gets harder and harder if you can’t shoot. There is such a premium on shooting. If you can’t shoot, you better be on the court with four guys who can. You can’t play two guys who can’t shoot."
Winslow believes he's starting to figure out the NBA game and vows to keep putting in the work. Besides getting up a lot of shots, he says he analyzes film of his shot, and he already has a plan for this summer, not only to work on his distance shooting but also his ball-handling “so we can get better spacing.”
He won’t be satisfied until perimeter shooting has gone from perceived liability to strength.
“We’re working on the three obviously, but also the catch and go, attacking them off the dribble with a head of steam,” he said. “A lot of Milwaukee players do that great. I’m still young. That’s not an excuse at all but I’ll have time to grow [as a shooter]. Just trying to get more consistent with it.”
That consistency will determine whether Bosh’s words prove prophetic, whether the Heat has a high-end cornerstone player or merely a nice supporting piece. It will be fascinating to watch unfold, and the Heat will be much closer to being a true contender if Winslow somehow can improve over the next four years as much as Green has with the Warriors.
### This interesting Heat nugget from Elias today: Dwyane Wade has scored at least 20 points and made at least 50 percent of his shots --- as he did Friday in Milwaukee --- in 360 games since he entered the league, which is by far the highest total for any starting guard over that span.
Next highest: Tony Parker's 273. The only two players with more 20-point/50 plus field-goal percentage games than Wade since he entered the NBA are LeBron James (478) and Dirk Nowitzki (370).
### We hear UM players are very excited about Manny Diaz’s attacking defense, believing it is better suited to many of their skill sets.
“Coming back is the best choice I ever made,” defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad said on Twitter. “This staff is unbelievable. They have our best interest [in mind].”
### We’re told Mark Richt signed a six-year deal, not the five-year contract that is more typical, because UM preferred six. The deal averages more than $4 million per season.
### Receivers coach Ron Dugans revealed that Richt opens every staff meeting with a prayer, something Bobby Bowden did at FSU.
### Four-star Wellington receiver Ahmmon Richards, a key UM target, tweeted his finalists tonight: UM, Alabama and Auburn.
### Winning on the road in the ACC is awfully difficult, but UM's 85-69 loss at North Carolina State today was especially disappointing because the Wolfpack entered 1-7 in the conference.
Sheldon McClellan (5 for 14 shooting) and Ja'Quan Newton (4 for 13) were off their games, and Tonye Jekiri (six points, five rebounds, no blocks) didn't make nearly the type of impact on the boards, or as defender, as we've come to expect. NC State shot 51 percent, with UM offering little deterrence.
UM (16-4, 5-3) reaches the midpoint of the ACC schedule when it hosts Notre Dame on Wednesday.
### CBS lead analyst Phil Simms, on a Super Bowl call Thursday, told me that when Dolphins coach Adam Gase was Denver’s offensive coordinator, “you walk by a meeting room in the hotel when he’s on the road, and he’s the only guy in there still working. No other coaches, just him doing work. Tireless worker. He’s the right man for the job.
“We’ve seen what he did with Peyton Manning, how they changed the offense to make it really good for him. He was there with Tim Tebow. What he did this past year in Chicago just another reason why he got a head coach and why I’m sure Ryan Tannehill is pretty excited to have him as the head coach and [play-caller].”
### Because Gase really likes what he has seen in Tannehill, and Mike Tannenbaum is convinced Miami can win with him, the Dolphins do not feel compelled to draft legitimate competition.
### Former UM assistant coach Clint Hurtt's chances for a homecoming were dashed when the Bears denied Gase’s request to interview (and hire) him. Hurtt, who very likely would have been Miami’s defensive line coach, will be an option for Gase when his contract as Bears’ outside linebacker coach expires next offseason --- if the Dolphins’ defensive line struggles under Terrell Williams….
Whereas Hurtt is in the NFL, the two other ex-UM assistants who got NCAA show-cause penalties from the Nevin Shapiro scandal are head coaches at the high-school level: football coach Aubrey Hill at Carol City, basketball coach Jorge Fernandez at Doral. Basketball coach Jake Morton, who received a notice of allegations but no penalties, is an assistant at Coppin State.
### Incidentally, Dan Campbell could have stayed on Miami’s staff if he had wanted (he chose New Orleans), while the Dolphins declined to allow multiple teams to hire special teams coach Darren Rizzi.
### Marlins executive Michael Hill said new hitting coach Barry Bonds is already immersed in the job, studying tape of Marlins hitters. Word is, he’s excited about working with Marcell Ozuna, among others.
### Among familiar names invited to Marlins spring training: former big-league infielder Robert Andino, the Miami Southridge High product who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Marlins (2005-2008). Andino -- who has hit .232 with 18 homers and 96 RBI in 468 career games --- hasn't played in the majors since a stint with Seattle in 2013. Andino, 31, spent last season with the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League.