Expectation can be a funny thing. In the abstract, we – in some cases, admittedly, the royal we – all expect things, whether it be the acceptance letter to a prestigious college, the big-time promotion that will finally make you feel a certain kind of comfortable or, in a more macro sense, the giant orb of light rising each morning despite all of the darkness, everywhere, all the time.
A funny thing about expectation, though – often, it doesn’t belong solely to the person on whom it is placed. That is to say, nurture makes itself apparent against nature, and whether you like it or not, you’re going to military school so that you can be a doctor. The other side of it, though, is that expectation, when set against the vast unknown, can be as powerful and as stupefying as fear. Like expectation itself, it isn’t always up to one person to decide whether to shoulder it on their own.
In this era of the NBA, as anyone who has ever heard of the Golden State Warriors or LeBron James knows, versatility is everything. It can make or break a team’s playoff hopes; no teams strictly follow positional guidelines anymore. The 2014 Eastern Conference Finalist Indiana Pacers team would have a tough time trotting out Roy Hibbert, Evan Turner and Lance Stephenson now in a crunch-time lineup, for example.
There was a very brief time almost four years ago – if it existed at all, because only those involved ever really know, and even then – during which the expectation placed on then-Duke prospect Justise Winslow was so high that Danny Ainge, of all people, figured he might be worth six NBA draft picks, including four first rounders. In 2015, that seemed insane; in 2018, it seems like straightforward malpractice on the part of the most blatantly ruthless general manager in the league.
This is a man who, as general manager of the Boston Celtics, had raided the Brooklyn Nets’ cabinet only two summers prior in exchange for the apparitions of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. Fresh off of a star turn as the do-everything cog in Mike Krzyzewski’s wheel during a Blue Devils championship season, Winslow had done enough to get the preeminent NBA front office minds talking about him. Ainge knows no such thing as empathy, but future asset value speaks to him.
Allegedly, at least three different teams – the Detroit Pistons (who drafted Stanley Johnson at #8), the Charlotte Hornets (Frank Kaminsky, #9) and the Miami Heat (Winslow himself, #10) – elected to reject the Celtics’ godfather offer in favor of their own pursuits. With all due respect, in the cases of the Pistons and Hornets, it seems that they did Ainge a favor in turning down his gigantic offer.
With the Heat, well – hold on a minute. All other things being equal, Justise Winslow will almost certainly never be worth four first round draft picks in a vacuum, but honestly, who could be? Even now, who in the NBA would have been worth four first rounders at the time of their entering the league, even based on what you know now?
But then, Winslow, now in his fourth season, has had something of a coming out party this year. Ever since Miami’s All-Star point guard Goran Dragić went down with a knee injury in December, Winslow, who is listed as a combo forward, has been running the point in South Beach.
His style is, in a word, unorthodox; he tends to sort of charge across half-court, darting to one wing or the other before, more or less, stumbling in a noticeably productive way(?) before whipping a pass or following the lead around a screen to dive into the paint.
It is approximately as pretty as what James Harden is usually up to, but without the experience of staged theatrics, so eventually Winslow tends to make something out of the nothing he discovers on the other side. Painted against the backdrop of Hassan Whitesides’ old school game/pining for a higher 2K rating and the workhorse stuff from the likes of Johnsons Tyler and James, as well as Bam Adebayo’s punishing development, the Dion Waiters redemption hour and the combined Dwyane Wade/Udonis Haslem retirement tour, Winslow’s jittery rampages represent a reprieve.
Since November 18th, which was the game after Dragić’s last game, Winslow has been on an absolute tear, the best stretch of his four-year career – 12.9 points, 3.8 assists and 5.1 rebounds on 44.4% shooting AND 38.6% shooting from three. This season is already shaping up to be his best. He’s 22 years old.
For all we know, Winslow is oblivious to the pre-draft deals in which he was implicated. That may be difficult to believe, but his play is so deliberate and high-strung that, well, wouldn’t he have only been distracted by some nonsense like that?
Surely, he’s not Jayson Tatum, but neither, at least this season, is Jayson Tatum, and the Celtics are, according to most, playing below expectation. With Winslow, a man on whom so much once was very nearly placed, there is no such weight.
Had four draft picks been his bounty, it might have been different. That could kill a career, especially one as injury-riddled as Winslow’s has been. As it is, Justise Winslow has come along slow and steady, and his directive is as important as any to Miami’s relentless pursuit of a playoff spot. Few could’ve expected this.
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 Which, with all due respect to the league’s decision to remove centers as a position in 2012, makes it all the more confounding that All-Star voting remains sequestered when players like Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo exist. Shout out to FreeDarko, as always
 Then again, their closest descendent now is the Oklahoma City Thunder, the best defensive (and worst-shooting) team in the NBA
 As well as alleged basketball player D.J. White, who the Nets immediately waived
 Not for nothing, but Winslow has NBA pedigree – his father, Rickie Winslow, played seven games as a small forward in 1987 for the Milwaukee Bucks, bearing witness to a pair of Michael Jordan 30-point outbursts and registering more personal fouls than any other box score statistic
 LeBron, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis and mayyyyyyyyyybe Giannis, who is on his way to playing himself out of that qualifier – that, charitably, might be it
 These numbers are through January 8th and do not include his 13-point, 11-assist (a season high!), 7-rebound game against, who else, the Boston Celtics themselves on Thursday night