Cassius Winston is a 6’1” junior lead guard for the 18-3 Michigan State Spartans. The Detroit native is one of the most effective facilitators in the country, and his cerebral leadership presence gives his Spartans a chance to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. Winston, an elite handler, shooter, and passer, boasts some of the most refined ball skills among draft-eligible lead guard prospects. He checks the majority of positional skill set boxes, and has proven to be an incredibly efficient offensive weapon. Winston may not have the prototypical frame, quick-twitch athleticism, explosiveness, positional length, or functional strength that NBA scouts and front office decision-makers seek in a modern age lead guard, but his polished combination of offensive skill, craft, instincts, feel, decision-making, and IQ is undeniable. Though having generally been tabbed as a four-year college player, continued individual production and team success, in conjunction with how the composition of this year’s draft class shakes out, could propel Winston into the 2019 NBA draft conversation.
Tale of the Tape
Passing Vision, Decision-Making, Basketball IQ
Being the lead guard of a historically prominent basketball powerhouse comes with its fair share of pressure and responsibility. Cassius Winston has been up for the challenge since the moment he stepped on campus, and has served as a direct extension of Coach Izzo as an on court leader and floor general. Winston, who averages 9.7 AST/40 on a 2.7 AST/TO ratio over the course of this collegiate career, has shown the ability to masterfully facilitate for others and run an offense, all while consistently taking care of the ball.
Winston, who was already a high-level creator and decision-maker as a true freshman, has shown steady improvement with each passing season. As a junior this season, Winston boasts a career low 14.7 TOV% on a career high 26.0 USG%. He plays with great pace and feel, which allows him to survey the floor and make reads while continuing to be a consistent threat to create for himself. This keeps the defense guessing, and results in many advantageous offensive situations following Winston-derived initiation.
Winston’s creative facilitation is functional and effective regardless of game situation. His two most frequent play types are transition and pick-and-roll initiation. Winston has thrived at both as a decision-maker.
There have been 170 transition possessions this season which have resulted in a Winston shot attempt, assist, or turnover. Winston has dished out 72 assists and committed only 13 turnovers (5.5 AST/TO) in these transition opportunities. He confidently leads the break, and consistently makes the correct decision to advance the ball, attack and create, or pull it back out if nothing is there.
As a pick-and-roll initiator, the threat of his jump shot forces high hedges. Winston is adept at hesitating to freeze the hedging big, forcing him into a difficult switch/stay decision. He then has the patience to take an angle-creating side dribble and wait just long enough for a passing window to open up to zip a pocket pass to a diving roll man. Winston protects the ball and doesn’t force any ill-advised passes out of the pick-and-roll, only turning it over on 12.4% of his possessions as a pick-and-roll initiator.
In the clip below, we highlight Winston’s patience, vision, and IQ as a creator for others.
Shooting: Unconventional Form, Consistently Positive Results
Another element of Winston’s game that pops both on film (for multiple reasons) and by the numbers is his shooting. Winston’s shooting mechanics are very unconventional, on multiple fronts. He has a notably wide stance, caves his knees inward, a relatively low and hitchy release, limited vertical lift, and kicks his legs out post-release.
These atypical mechanical aspects of Winston’s jump shot may trouble talent evaluators at first glance, but there are key aspects of his shooting form that remain remarkably consistent with every attempt. Despite his wide stance, Winston has excellent pre-shot footwork and is always square to the basket. Despite the low location of his release, Winston’s upper body mechanics are concise and tight, with ideal elbow alignment and a consistent shooting pocket.
The unconventional aspects of Winston’s shot have yet to hinder his ability to get clean looks, and he has converted at a historically positive clip. Winston is shooting a scorching 45.8% from three over the course of a 343 shot sample as a Spartan. He ranks as a 97th percentile catch-and-shoot threat this season, converting at a rate of 1.525 PPP (nearly automatic when unguarded, at 1.715 PPP). On 89 three-point attempts derived via half-court offense this season, Winston ranks in the 94th percentile, converting at a rate of 1.393 PPP.
In the clip below, we highlight Winston’s ability to get off his shot in transition, via catch-and-shoot, and off-the-bounce.
Change of Pace
Perhaps Winston’s most intriguing tool as a prospect is a derivation of the two skills highlighted above. The threats of Winston’s shooting prowess and passing vision enhance the functionality of his deceptive change of pace. Despite his lack of elite quick-twitch athleticism and explosive burst, Winston’s low center of gravity allows him to quickly and forcefully shift his weight from one direction to another. Defenders have to press up on him to combat his shooting prowess, which allows him to perform effective hesitation dribbles and fake gathers, freezing the defender in their tracks. Winston is then able to quickly change speeds and blow by his off balance opposition.
Two shot types in the half court that serve as an indicator of the effectiveness of Winston’s change of pace are rim finishing and runners/floaters.
Despite his physical tools, Winston is a 75th percentile finisher around the basket, converting at a rate of 1.293 PPP. He picks and chooses his spots to utilize his change of pace to get by his defender when there is an apparent lack of help-side defense. There is certainly room for him to improve as a finisher through contact, but his finesse-based craft makes him a more than capable at converting in the paint.
When help-side rim protection is apparent, Winston opts to use his soft touch on runners/floaters. Winston ranks in the 91st percentile on runner attempts, converting at a rate of 1.107 PPP. This is essential to his post-change-of-pace finishing arsenal, given that he is not an above the rim finisher.
Put plainly and simply, Winston is an excellent basketball player. He has a natural feel for the game, is a savvy initiator, and is a remarkably consistent shooter. What holds Winston back from being a surefire bet at the next level to NBA scouts and front office decision-makers are his lack of elite physical tools, and how that will impact the translatability of his game to the pros. There are certainly some aspects of his physical/athletic profile that can be improved through dedication to strength and conditioning training, however, there are other inherent aspects that Winston will simply have to overcome with skill, smarts, and effort to carve out a role in the NBA.
Winston’s early entrant decision is likely dependent upon a number of factors. Winston has a very legitimate shot at earning a multitude of individual accolades (All-Conference, Big Ten Player of the Year, All-American, Bob Cousy Award, etc.), and his Spartans certainly look to be primed for a deep run in March/April. If Winston continues at a high level of efficient production and leads Michigan State to the Final Four, it is quite possible that his stock as an NBA prospect reaches its apex.
Winston most likely projects as going undrafted, but optimistically has an outside chance of being selected in the late 2nd round if everything breaks right. Regardless of whether he is selected, Winston’s aforementioned high-level offensive skill and elite decision-making provide him with theoretical bench initiator equity, and a realistic chance of sticking in the league one day. His path to earning minutes in an NBA rotation would likely mirror that of Monte Morris: be such an effective decision-maker and selective shot maker that your contribution to winning cannot be ignored.
At the very least, declaring for the 2019 NBA Draft, testing the waters, getting feedback from NBA personnel, and making a well-informed decision to turn pro or return for his senior season would be beneficial to Winston’s basketball career and his pursuit of the ultimate goal of playing professional basketball.