With the 53rd overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the Washington Wizards effectively selected point guard Cassius Winston out of Michigan State University, via a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder.. A four-year player under Tom Izzo in East Lansing, Winston epitomizes what the Wizards value in young players: high character and a tireless work-ethic.
Despite a standout collegiate career, Winston enters the league as an undersized player; he is 6-foot-1. For all the doubts he has faced throughout his career, Winston has known for several years that playing in the NBA was achievable.
“I would say after my sophomore year of college is when I actually thought I had a chance to make the NBA,” Winston said in a Zoom interview last week. “That’s when I was like, ‘I’ve made my goal. I’ve made my decision that this is what I’m going to do. I’ve got everything I need to make it happen. I’m just going to go out there and I’m going to go do it.’”
Over the course of four years at Michigan State, Winston played a total of 139 games, 108 of which he started, and averaged 14.2 points and 6.4 assists. In his final two seasons with the Spartans, Winston averaged 18.8 and 18.6 points per game, respectively. Even more impressive were his shooting metrics. He shot 46-percent from the field (10.1 attempts per game), 43-percent from three (4.3) and 85-percent from the line (3.5).
With most NBA teams prioritizing young players — 19 or under — in the lottery, the second round provides teams a chance to select more polished prospects who may be seen to have lower ceilings but can make more of an impact early. In Winston’s case, the Wizards are bringing in a player with a distinguished resume, including 2019 Big Ten Player of the Year.
“I would say I’m battle tested,” Winston said. “It would take a lot to discourage me. It would take a lot to get me down, mentally. Physically, I feel like I can push myself to those limits, push myself to make something happen.”
Despite having less NBA experience than several recent draft picks on the Wizards, Winston comes to D.C. as one of the more professional “young players.” At 22, Winston is older than both Isaac Bonga (21) and Troy Brown Jr. (21), and fits with the rest of the team’s young core — Thomas Bryant (23), Rui Hachimura (22), Jerome Robinson (23) and Mo Wagner (23).
Not only does Winston’s age make him a natural fit alongside a developing roster, his mindset and determination are characteristics Head Coach Scott Brooks demands from his players.
“I think the Wizards are a hard-working, hard-playing team that wants to win,” Winston said. “I think they want to compete with the best, and they’re trying to win as many games as possible. And that’s what I do. I’m going to be a playmaker. I’m going to make guys around me better. I want to build a bond and build something special.”
Winston, together with the rest of his teammates and coaching staff, will have a truncated training camp in preparation for the 2020/21 season, which is set to begin December 22. Without the standard summer league and time to learn new offensive and defensive schemes, Winston’s time playing under one of the most detail-oriented coaches in the college game will make the acclimation process smoother.
An offensively gifted playmaker, Winston is dangerous off the pick and roll, is an adept shooter and is a natural-born leader and facilitator. He can get to sweet spots in the mid-range, shoot off screens, reliably hit step backs, create space and has a quick release. The jump from college to the NBA, or from any league, requires players to adapt their games in order to find success at the next level.
“I feel like if you can dribble, you can shoot, you know how to get a little bit of space, you can make something happen out there,” Winston said. “Just being able to get to my spots, being able to create space, being able to get my shot off. Being skillful, keep getting better, I think those things will help me out a lot.”
While Winston immediately should be able to contribute off the bench on offense, he will need to improve his defensive game. As a smaller guard, the former Spartan acknowledged that he must improve on that side of the ball.
“Trusting my scouting reports,” he said. “Talking to each other [on defense]. Figuring out the defensive system. Just something that you have to want to do. Whatever it takes to win, I’m going to make sure I go out there and do it.”
The development process will be aided by the ability to work with several veterans, including Ish Smith at the point guard position and All-Star Bradley Beal, helping Winston to become a valuable member of Washington’s bench unit.
“I’m going to try and learn as much as possible,” he said. “These are guys that have been in it, been through it, still in it. I’m going in there to learn as much as I can from those guys and make that happen. Just being able to go in there and learn as much as I can so that when it’s my turn, I’m going to make sure I take full advantage of it.”
And that turn may come sooner than expected. When he was drafted last Wednesday night, Winston was the third point guard on the depth chart behind John Wall and Ish Smith. With recent reports claiming Wall has requested a trade from D.C., however, Winston could see time as the team’s backup point guard for portions of the season, making his selection in the second round a prudent one by General Manager Tommy Sheppard.
In a moment when his NBA dreams were finally realized, it also was a time of celebration for both those who were and weren’t there. Surrounded by family on draft night, Winston said, “Everybody in my family was extremely excited. We’ve all been putting in work. We’ve all been grinding for an extremely long time for this moment right here.”
For all the elation, the absence of Winston’s younger brother, Zachary, who passed last November, prompted a moment of reflection. “He just would have been proud of me,” Winston said. “Just what we went through, what we made happen. Where I’m from, you don’t make it this far. You don’t get this moment. We worked for it. He definitely would be proud of me.”