When the Miami Heat drafted Justise Winslow out of Duke as the 10th overall pick nearly four years ago, big things were expected from the forward.
Winslow wasn't what you'd call a standout player - he averaged 12.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in 39 games for the University in his freshman year - yet Heat scouts saw something special and decided to make him their man.
The Heat had become used to dominating but were left humbled after losing LeBron James in 2014. They needed someone to fill the void and, while they did not exactly place that kind of pressure on Winslow, the rookie should have known that expectations would be huge.
Winslow's Heat career certainly did not pan out the way he expected, but he did earn All-Rookie Second Team honors at the end of his first season. His second term was hardly an improvement as he was made to miss most of it due to injury and resulting surgery.
By his third campaign, the hype had properly died down and the player was on the brink of obscurity. However, his impressive defending and ability to come off the bench and provide a bit of offense prompted the Heat to sign him to a three-year extension ahead of the beginning of this season.
He got off to a very encouraging start, recording 15 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks in his first start of the season, on November 3, and lodged a career-high 28 points in another loss to the Los Angeles Lakers early in December, sinking six triples.
It wasn't until after the Heat lost Goran Dragic to knee surgery on December 19 that Winslow really began to show his evolution. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra opted to hand him the starting point guard role, ahead of proven players in Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson, and the former Duke star has really thrived since then.
The player had shown promise at the point in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers in early December, posting 21 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds, turning the ball over just once. And when the opportunity came, Winslow grabbed it with both hands.
Since operating as the team's de facto point guard, the 6ft 7in attacker has averaged 15.6 points, 5.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds a game. The Heat have also won seven of those 11 games and have seen their record improve significantly as they've risen to the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Winslow previously admitted that he was impatient and wanted things to happen right away for him after getting drafted.
“A couple years in the league, I’ve gotten to see guys develop. Just use Devin Booker as a example," he told The Athletic last month. He developed in a different way. He’s becoming a great player. And Jimmy Butler, he developed totally different than Kawhi Leonard.
"Everybody has their own development plan. For me, I was getting impatient. I wanted things to happen overnight. I had to think about how far that I had come and where I wanted to go and where I am now. Things are starting to fall in place.”
His offensive rise hasn't left his defense wanting either. Winslow continues to be as effective on the other end of the court, even more so since his positional switch. His defensive rating of 103.1 is one of the best in the league since then and Miami are better off for it.
Udonis Haslem, one of the cornerstones of Heat basketball for the last several years, views the youngster as a player who could take on the role the team's leader when he retires along with Dwyane Wade at the end of the season.
"When I walk away from this organization and the basketball side of things, I would like it to be in good hands and I would like to see the culture and the tradition to carry on in the right way," the outgoing vet told the Sun-Sentinel this past weekend.
"I love what Justise is doing. I love the edge that he plays with. If I could pick somebody, I would love for it to be Justise."
"He puts in a great deal of time on his game," Spoelstra added. "I have him playing at a new position right now and he is learning it and gobbling up all the information night to night. He is striking that balance of getting us organized and learning when to be aggressive."
Winslow has proven that he has what it takes to become the team's primary ball-handler and his versatility makes him all the more valuable.
Justise Winslow has 7 20 point games this season. He only had 2 20 point games before this season.— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) January 13, 2019
Is he finally breaking out? pic.twitter.com/X4yomb3T8g
Spoelstra will have a bit of a problem on his hands when Dragic returns. The coach will be faced with the dilemma of thrusting the Slovenian back into the starting lineup and possibly stunting Winslow's growth, or leaving the veteran star to play backup, something that might not go down well either.
Dragic, 32, could still have some trade value. But, set to make a reported $18,109,175 this season and unable to return to the court until the end of February, it would be quite difficult to work out a deal for the player with another team, especially as his game looks to be in decline.
Winslow, on the other hand, is 10 years younger and there's no ceiling on his potential. It's going to be interesting to see how the Heat handle what could become a real conundrum where he is concerned. But, the 22-year-old still has quite a lot of time to solidify his place as a starter before Dragic comes back and would do well to keep impressing his coach.