Earlier this week, I chatted with Ryan O’Bleness, the site manager of The Only Colors, SB Nation’s Michigan State Spartans blog to get his perspective on Washington Wizards rookie point guard Cassius Winston. Winston was picked 53rd overall in the 2020 NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder before getting traded to Washington.
Note that we did this Q&A before the news broke about John Wall demanding a trade out of Washington.
Bullets Forever: Winston is the Spartans’ (and Big Ten’s) leader in career assists and was the Big Ten Player of the Year last season (2018-19). The Wizards can use another strong three-point shooter like him, but they need defensive help even more across every position. How has Winston fared in Big Ten and NCAA tournament competition as a defender?
Ryan: Cassius Winston definitely thrives more on the offensive side of the ball and has plenty of work to do defensively, but his defense is not a total detriment in my opinion. He is a willing defender, he’s just a bit limited athletically, and doesn’t have great speed, size or length at 6’1. So he is probably going to get beat by quicker guards who can blow past him or shoot over him from time to time.
That said, he is cerebral and is one of the smartest players in the whole 2020 NBA Draft class — his basketball IQ is seriously off the charts. He is likely going to be vocal on that end, calling out what he sees, putting himself in the best position to succeed, and will try to be a pest and just bother off-ball shooters.
It will take some time for him to adjust to the speed of the NBA, as it did for him in college, but once he’s settled down and locked in, you have a player who is going to leave everything out on the court on both ends. Basically, there will be growing pains with him, but that should be expected for a late second-round draft pick.
BF: John Wall is likely playing limited minutes for the Wizards this season after rehabbing an Achilles injury from nearly two years ago. That could give Winston an opportunity to start some games, perhaps more if Wall has a setback. Do you think he could be a starting NBA point guard on a team with playoff aspirations?*
*Again, this Q&A was done before it was known that Wall requested a trade from the Wizards. Even then, it’s a relevant question because Winston may be starting many games if Wall is traded midseason for example.
Ryan: As I mentioned, I would expect some growing pains from Winston early on. I see his role better served as coming off of the bench as a backup point guard to start, and as he gets more comfortable and used to the pace of the NBA, then I could see him eventually stepping into a starting role this season.
That said, Winston has a lot of strengths, I already mentioned his extremely high basketball IQ, but Winston is also one of the more polished pick-and-roll guards coming out of the 2020 class. He’s an excellent shooter from three-point range, mid-range, the free throw line, etc. He is an incredible passer with excellent court vision who is able to use his body to create angles and thread the needle in spots where it didn’t look possible.
He can create his own shot off the dribble, and isn’t afraid to attack the basket either. These are all positives, amongst many others in his game, and I wholeheartedly expect Winston to outproduce his draft slot. Again, his limitations are with his size and athleticism, which unfortunately are things that cannot be coached up, and on the defensive side of the ball — which is something he will be able to improve upon with good coaching and more experience at the next level.
BF: What sets Winston apart as a four-year college player entering the NBA from younger players who were picked earlier than him? I don’t see his “old age” as a disadvantage. I would also say the same thing about now-Grizzlies post Xavier Tillman, since he was a junior before going pro.
Ryan: I think the NBA puts a premium on “potential” in the Draft over actual results at the college level. Teams probably look at Winston as a player who accomplished a lot in college, but as a player with a limited ceiling, so that brought down his draft stock.
NBA teams also favor youth, so as you mention, his “old age” at 22-years-old may have caused him to slide a bit as well. Maybe that’s fair, maybe that isn’t — not all lottery picks pan out.
I think Winston playing for Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo for four years is a serious positive. Izzo has many of his former players playing in the NBA right now — Draymond Green, Gary Harrris, Bryn Forbes, Denzel Valentine, Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr. — and many have enjoyed successful careers thus far. Not all of which were four-year players, but with the exception of Jackson, all of them played for Izzo for at least two seasons.
Again, the best part of Winston’s game is his intelligence and his uncanny ability to find the open man. He went from a freshman who started just five games, to the full-time starting point guard as a sophomore, to an absolute superstar who carried his team to a Final Four as a junior, to a senior who helped Michigan State win its third straight regular season Big Ten championship in his last ever game.
All of this experience, all of the ups and downs he went through, helped him into the player he is into now. I agree with you that choosing to stay in college for four years is not a disadvantage, and I would argue he is better now because of it.
BF: Michigan State was tied for first in the Big Ten standings with Maryland and Wisconsin at the time the 2019-20 season ended. They won four consecutive games against ranked opponents before things came to a screeching halt.
Winston is already considered one of MSU’s all-time greats, but the Spartans had a shot to win the national championship last season if the coronavirus pandemic didn’t hit. Do you think that a national title could make at least some fans think even more highly of him than they do already?
Ryan: Winston will forever be beloved by Spartans fans. He won over Spartan Nation pretty early on in his career, but that love for him blossomed even wider when he led MSU to a Final Four in 2019 on bad knees as he dealt with tendinitis.
Then what he went through last year — I’m not sure if Wizards fans are aware of his story yet, but Winston lost his younger brother, Zachary, to suicide in November of 2019, which obviously devastated him. The way he fought through that and still was able to lead his team on the court was nothing short of remarkable.
In addition to breaking the Big Ten’s records for most assists of all-time, Winston won many individual and team awards.
He was the Big Ten Player of the Year and the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 2019, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors two years running. Winston earned first-team and second-team All-American honors depending on the outlet, was part of the Big Ten Medal of Honor class of 2020, and was a three-time Big Ten Champion. Winston was a great student in the classroom as well, where he earned Academic All-Big Ten and Academic All-American honors. And he is a member of the Big Ten All-Decade second team for the 2010s, amongst numerous other accolades. Really, the only thing he didn’t accomplish was win a national championship, which is a team award, not an individual one.
I do believe, at the very least, Michigan State was going to make another Final Four run last year, with the strong potential of a national championship — the team was playing its best collective basketball at the end of last season.
It was devastating for Winston and the Spartans, as well as Spartans fans, to not get that opportunity one more time, as the tournament was canceled due to COVID. Winston is a legend in East Lansing regardless, and while a championship would have put him in the greatest Spartan ever discussion (outside of Magic Johnson), he’s still on the list. Once he has time to develop his game at the NBA level, I think Wizards fans will quickly grow fond of Winston as well. He is a guy who is really easy to root for.