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Looking forward to the NBA Draft: Cassius Winston

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Something to distract us during these very difficult times

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Is it a bad omen that on the same day I started writing for this site the entire NBA shut down? Possibly. Is that going to stop me from blogging like a maniac about things that normal people don’t usually concern themselves with? Of course not.

There’s so much we don’t know right now. I want to say that eventually we’ll have an NBA season to come back to, but that’s far from a guarantee.

However, I still have legitimate confidence that at least one thing will happen — there will be an NBA Draft. I don’t know when. I don’t know if the NCAA will give seniors an extra year of eligibility. It would probably have to take place over some weird Google Hangouts broadcast live on TV. But regardless, there will most likely be a draft in which the next young crop of basketball talent is introduced into the Association.

That’s why I plan to break down the draft for all you Sixers fans, analyzing who are the best and most realistic fits based on the Sixers’ draft position and needs.

The chance that any more regular season games take place is closer to zero than 100, indicating that the Sixers’ draft position is already locked in. They do not own their original first-round pick, instead owing it to the Brooklyn Nets. However, due to their unexpected success this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder have played themselves into a top-10 record in the NBA, meaning that they convey the top-20 protected first-rounder that the Sixers acquired in the gosh darn Jerami Grant-Ersan Ilyasova trade that feels like eons ago (Thanks Bryan!).

That gives the Sixers the 22nd pick in this draft, with their second-rounders currently positioned at 34th, 36th, 49th and 59th. For those of you who haven’t been following it closely, this is one of the worst draft classes in years. Like, we’re talking Class of 2000, Kwame Brown-first overall pick bad. Having multiple picks at a pool where projecting who the elite players are feels like a crapshoot isn’t the worst place to be for the Sixers.

So what should the Sixers be looking for? They need a secondary creator, ideally, a guard who specializes in being able to get buckets off the dribble. We all saw how much it helped to have Jimmy Butler, as he could get the ball and make something happen when things were breaking down. Currently, the Sixers’ only player that has true elite handling can’t shoot and is in severe back pain.

That brings us to Cassius Winston, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound point guard that has established himself as one of the most accomplished players in Michigan State history over his four-year collegiate career.

Winston is an offensive dynamo, and his calling card is his ability to shoot off the dribble. He shot 43.9 percent on 3s and 85.2 percent on free throws, while hitting a 3 in all but two games during his senior season.

His stroke is a little funky, bearing close resemblance to the jumper of former Spartan Draymond Green. Winston arches himself as if he’s wearing a backpack and kicks his feet forward in a chaotic motion (seriously, what is Tom Izzo teaching those guys in East Lansing?). But hey, if you can make them like Winston can, it doesn't really matter how jacked up your form is.

That’s the kind of high-ball screen that’s foreign to the Philadelphia offense, as the players out there are either incapable or unwilling to shoot it. Winston even possesses some dynamic step-back scoring capability, which has become one of the most valuable skills in the league.

As we’ll soon see, Winston is far from a perfect prospect, but this attribute of his should translate to the next level. He was able to do it consistently, looking comfortable when doing it with a quick release. It’s reminiscent of the Hornets’ Devonte’ Graham, who had many flaws coming out of Kansas, but is able to make triples in situations where others can’t, and arguably became the best player for his team this year.

Of course, a lot of role players are capable of hunting their own shot (Jordan Clarkson, Austin Rivers), but those players often fail when it comes to creating for others. That’s not the case with Winston, though. He broke the Big Ten’s all-time assist record with 890 in his career (per Sports Reference) and displayed good timing on his lobs to bigs off pick-and-roll action.

One might counter that because Winston dominated the ball so much, that boosted his raw assist totals, rather than proving his value as a playmaker. However, Winston finished top-three in the entire country in assist rate in each of his first three seasons, before dropping to 19th in the country as a senior, per KenPom.

In the play below, he manipulates the defense perfectly with a jump and a look-away to find his open teammate. It’s a level of creativity and free-flowing goodness that is usually nowhere to be found when the Sixers are running their offense.

That said, Winston is simply a good pick-and-roll passer, not a great one. He knows how to find the roll-man and is willing to do it, but he doesn’t have that superstar-like ability to skip to opposite corners and burn defenses for over-helping. In the next clip, he costs his team a great chance for a corner 3 as he sails the pass wildly off the mark.

There’s also a reason that Winston didn’t come out a couple of years ago. He’s not a top-end talent, and his athleticism often leaves one wanting more. Against more springy and agile bigs, Winston would get repeatedly denied in embarrassing fashion whenever he ventured into the paint.

That last highlight is particularly incriminating of his deficiencies. The lane opens like the Red Sea, yet Winston is unable to explode through the gap and gets absolutely swatted by Jack White of all people (who isn’t a bad player, but you probably won’t see him in the league anytime soon).

Winston also seems to be very right-hand-dominant, almost like someone’s playing 2K and constantly spamming an in-and-out dribble in order to avoid going to his weak side.

Even though he scores, that’s still a poor showing from Winston, as he clearly pushed off on Tre Jones and is bailed out by the blown call. Jones is begging for Winston to try and go the opposite way, as his hips are completely flipped in a lateral direction as they run up the court, yet Winston simply plunges forward with his head down. Imagine Pat Beverley or Avery Bradley checking Winston in that scenario. That’s a turnover waiting to happen.

But by far, the most important thing Winston has to do to make it at the next level is improve his defense. He’s slow-footed and inattentive on-ball, allowing a so-so offensive point guard in Zavier Simpson to simply waltz to the rim.

This happened all the time throughout Winston’s career, and it doesn’t get any better off-ball. He dies on off-ball screens like someone hit him over the head with an anvil, and he shows little-to-no desire to try and recover from his initial mistake.

He’s often credited as a smart and intuitive player, but even positional awareness passes him by on the defensive end of the floor. In the following play, he gets so locked in on the two players simply switching spots that he completely abandons the principle of help defense. Here, Simpson again trots to the rim as Winston turns his back to the ball.

Conclusions and Comps:

Winston has been projected as high as the 28th selection in Jonathan Givony’s mock draft on ESPN+, and as low as 41st in the projections over at Tankathon.com. In a mock draft he sent via Twitter, Brian Schroeder of Dime Uproxx had the Sixers taking Winston with the 33rd overall pick (which has now changed to 34th since he released it). Picking Winston at 22nd overall would likely be a reach, but picking him at 34th or 36th could just as easily be a steal.

Personally, I think Winston would be a great fit for the Sixers. Even after justifiably ripping his defense and lack of dynamic upside, I think the team needs his off-the-dribble shot-making ability that badly. In this weak class, there are hardly any guys that jump off the page and make you get excited. They lack the defining skill that makes you believe that they can stick in the league. Winston has the defining skill.

An ultimate upside comparison for Winston is Kyle Lowry, as they possess similar body types, utilize a 3-point heavy, always-moving offensive style, and dribble like they’re leaning too far forward. He even has the same tendency to annoyingly sprint over to take every single dead ball out before the other team can get back, despite the official yelling at him to calm down.

Obviously, Lowry is a much better defender and one of the smartest players in the league. Playing at the level of Lowry is likely never going to happen for Winston, but at least a sliver of that potential is contained inside him.

Worst case, Winston’s an offense-only guard like Trey Burke that seems great at times, but the team is inherently worse with him on the court.

Most realistic outcome? He’s a shorter Shake Milton — a flawed player that relies on his 3-point shooting to cover his problems. That’s at least the response I got from one trusted friend and basketball expert.

My response, “Hey, you can never have too many Shake’s.”