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The curious case of Justise Winslow takes Los Angeles

The once touted forward has spent his NBA career as a middling journeyman. Is LA finally where it all works out?

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Memphis Grizzlies v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021-22 Clips Nation season preview series, where we’re digging into something that interests us about each player for this coming season. Next up: what should be expected from newly acquired Justise Winslow?

Full disclosure time, folks: I’m a Celtics fan. As much as one can be a fan of a team that plays a sport, I am of the Boston Celtics. I assure you that I am far from biased, and perhaps even a bit too critical in the interest of proving how unbiased I am. But if we’re going to trust each other — and I like this thing we have going here, don’t you? — I feel like I should be wholly honest with you. And I’d be doing our relationship, Clippers writer to Clippers fan, a disservice if I withheld that any longer.

With that out of the way, I have something more I need to confess: I am so jealous that Ballmer, Frank and Co. were able to snatch Justise Winslow off of the NBA free-agent scrap heap in August. I do hope you know how lucky you are having gained the opportunity to learn to love him. Winslow and I have carried on a torrid, toxic love affair for some time now, and it’s incredibly unhealthy whilst incredibly enthralling. I want Winslow in my life, playing basketball and stealing hearts. I wanted him in 2015, and in hindsight, consider myself lucky that my team couldn't make the move to grab him in the lottery then. But every summer/contract year since, he’s dominated my thoughts. Those leaning drives to the rim behind a monster truck motor and shoulders the size of your average freeway overpass... they haunt me.

There are reasons aplenty for my obsession. Few players in recent NBA draft history have procured as much raw, unmilled hype as Winslow. Midway through the 2010s, the former Blue Devil entered the league as promising and as pined after as any Duke alum since Kyrie Irving. He was marketed as a scorer, a defender, a slasher, and a bruiser, essentially the NBA’s version of The Steve Miller Band’s “Joker.” The idea of him in Boston didn’t provide as much allure as the idea of him thriving on the professional level did; forget about my team, Justise, just prove me right, I’d say to my television. For some reason, he never listened.

Denver Nuggets v LA Clippers
Winslow enters a team without a true penchant for positional basketball, which could prove to be to his benefit
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

When it all went wrong — he’s seen more setbacks than James Harden has stepbacks, playing more than 26 games only twice in the last five seasons due to injury — I didn’t wallow for me, though. I wallowed on Winslow’s behalf, knowing that somewhere in that 6’6 frame was (and is) a prolific talent that could (and can) raise the ceiling of any lucky NBA team should all things break right.

It’s just that that hope, that everything breaks right, has gone every which direction but right since he’s entered the league. He’s now on his third team — and this group is undoubtedly the one best positioned for contention. In five seasons with the Heat, his teams never won more than 46 games; the Grizzlies won 38 last year in his lone full season in Memphis, a condensed one at that.

Winslow also enters a team without a true penchant for positional basketball, which could prove to be to his benefit. Despite his setbacks and disappointing legacy to this point, Winslow has such a fluid skillset to offer that, in all reality, he might be one of the more positionally versatile players in the entire NBA. He’s defended the greats and forced them into boxes unlike many other players have the capability to do, and though he doesn’t do it nearly consistently enough, he does it in a fashion that makes you audibly go “HM?!” every time he suits up.

On Monday night, when the Clippers opened their preseason against the Denver Nuggets, Mann led the second unit late in the game as a de facto point guard alongside Luke Kennard, Brandon Boston Jr., and Amir Coffey. That left Winslow to play center — a position he can certainly fulfill the requirements of, particularly on a team with interchangeability as its present hallmark.

Does he end up playing a little point guard? That will be Eric Bledsoe’s wheelhouse as the starter, but it’s not something Winslow is foreign to skill-wise. He finished with four assists, seven rebounds, and a block in the preseason opener, not exactly a glowing line, but one that could prove valuable while rookie reserve point guard Jason Preston remains sidelined.

Frankly, it’s redundant for me to continue lobbing positional questions Winslow’s way due to the fact that he’ll apparently be taking on whatever is necessary depending on the rotation Ty Lue puts on the floor. Just think about what “happened” to Batum upon arrival: he started at power forward for some time before wading into the waters of playing center periodically. Paul George was often the team’s primary ballhandler last season; the same goes for Kawhi Leonard. Marcus Morris Sr., Reggie Jackson, and Terance Mann all saw their positional designations blur to the point where it became more appropriate for a shrugging emoji to sit beside their names on the lineup card than for it to say “SG” or “C”.

Winslow, to his credit, couldn’t care less what he plays, just that he contributes in some form or fashion. The disaster of a career he’s maintained relative to his initial expectations is in dire need of a makeover, and Los Angeles very well may be the place for that to occur. For the past few weeks — since arriving in Los Angeles, it’s worth noting — Winslow has posted an inspirational quote of some kind on his Instagram story each morning. At 7 a.m. on the dot, you can expect to see his whiteboard displaying someone’s sage advice to the masses.

My favorite one of late: “Whether in life or nature, some of the most beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost” - Dr. Erol Ozan.

Winslow’s path, in some ways, I suppose could be considered beautiful. From a basketball perspective, he’s seen tribulation after tribulation, trial after trial, but in an ideal world, those trials are the things that make him stronger. Just ask Kelly Clarkson. Or just ask those who have watched him closely for as long as I and many others have, hoping that one day, he’ll splinter the shackles that have linked him exclusively to injury reports and benches across this great league.

In May, Bryce Hayes wrote a brilliant piece for Grizzly Bear Blues in which he detailed those trials to a tee, writing that “Every night we actively watch him relearn the game of basketball with a body that is drastically different than the one from the beginning of the 2019-20 season,” an uncommon burden for any player to bear, and something that is especially uncommon for a player to stick it out through. “The guy is human and trying to figure it out. The trials of Justise aren’t over because obstacles will always exist — that’s life. That being said, don’t let the current stretch let you close the book on Winslow.”

The Book of Justise is far from closed; it’s being written. Perhaps its prose isn’t wholly eloquent to this point. But maybe Los Angeles is the place for it to be unleashed to perfection... or close to it.