HOUSTON – In November, 2013, shortly after making their own college decisions, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones helped convince Justise Winslow to depart Houston for Duke University.
Winslow has brought his teammates back to his hometown, 16 months later, as the freshman trio lead Duke into today’s Elite Eight matchup with Gonzaga.
Winslow was a stoic basketball player, back when he used to run around the Houston blacktops, the embodiment of the never-too-high-and-never- too-low ethos many coaches insist their players adopt.
He returns to Space City as a bit of a showman, turned into one by a former West Point cadet.
“I got to Duke and Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) told me to let it out,” Winslow said. “There’s been times this year I’ve said things or done things on the court, emotionally, that I probably shouldn’t have done but it’s just trying to find that balance.”
One such instance came in Friday’s win over Utah, when Winslow hit the second of his back-to-back 3-pointers and faced the crowd to celebrate, replicating James Harden’s “stir the pot” hand gesture. The Utes quickly passed the ball over Winslow’s head for an easy bucket.
Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, not one to be wary about his own post-shot celebrations, says that such antics can energize an opponent as well as one’s own team.
“It gets you going as well, because you don’t want another team celebrating in your face or anything like that,” Wiltjer said. “And you want to win so badly that you kind of take it personally.”
Winslow and his first-year brethren have had a lot to celebrate over the last year and a half. The three all declared for Duke in November 2013, completing what recruiting analysts judged the most talented class in the country.
They are all among the top four scorers on the Blue Devils roster and have been the most prominent players on one of the country’s most visible programs. Jones is the point guard and plays the most minutes of Duke’s freshmen while Okafor is the sure-thing NBA prospect who is widely expected to be among the first two players selected in the draft.
But Winslow has been Duke’s best player during the NCAA tournament. At 6-foot-6, 225, he has been an able and versatile defender this season. Lately, however, it has been offense where Winslow has proved the most valuable to the Blue Devils.
Winslow was the only Blue Devil that had a good shooting night against Utah’s tough defense in the 63-57 win, making 4 of 5 shots outside the paint – including the team’s only three 3-pointers – while his teammates combined to make just one of 10.
Despite his lack of height, the Duke coaches have been playing him at the power forward spot, and it’s worked.
That means he’ll undoubtedly match up against the 6-foot-10 Kyle Wiltjer today.
“He’s left handed and built like LeBron James, so that’s going to be an issue and we’ll do some things with that matchup whether we have somebody else guard him besides Wiltjer or have Wiltjer guard him and have a plan for how we rotate out in certain situations,” GU assistant Tommy Lloyd said.
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