Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau preview Michigan State's game against Texas Tech in the Final Four. The Detroit News
Minneapolis — Cassius Winston didn’t really expect this from Cassius Winston, so no one else should feel too bad if they didn’t, either.
“Nah,” he says with a laugh, “I didn’t picture it like this.”
But as the injuries started piling up for Michigan State’s basketball team this winter, and the responsibilities grew for the junior point guard, so did his stature. His vantage point changed, too.
“Opportunities just kept knocking, doors kept opening, and I said I was gonna take advantage of all of them,” Winston said Thursday from the Final Four, where he and the rest of the Spartans will try to win their first national championship since 2000.
But what if he does? What if Winston seizes this latest opportunity, kicks down the door and takes home another trophy as the best player on the best team in college basketball?
In some ways, that might be the strangest part about this long, strange trip for Michigan State that nobody in green and white wants to end: the lingering skepticism about what comes next for Winston and how his game might translate to the NBA.
“I think it’s funny,” said Dwayne Stephens, Michigan State’s longtime assistant coach. “When you can have as much success as he’s having at this level, I think it translates. Now, if he’s doing the same thing and he’s playing Division III, maybe you can say he can’t be an NBA player. But for someone to say that Cassius can’t be an NBA player? I would say they’re foolish.”
And yet they’re out there.
Michigan State's Aaron Henry, Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward talk about facing Texas Tech in the Final Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
ESPN’s most recent Top 100 draft board lists Winston at No. 87, one spot ahead of Michigan freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and behind 16 other point guards. Among them, Duke’s Tre Jones, the freshman guard who was clearly outclassed by Winston in their head-to-head battle last week in the Elite Eight. (Both played all 40 minutes, and while Winston put on a show with 20 points, 10 assists, four steals and one turnover, Jones finished with four points, five assists and one turnover.) Sam Vecenie of The Athletic just updated his top 100 list, moving Winston up from 98th a month ago to 55th now, just ahead of another undersized guard in Marquette’s Markus Howard.
And when I asked a couple NBA scouts — one from each conference — point-blank this week whether they thought Winston would be drafted in June if he opted to bypass his senior year, one said no and the other said … maybe.
To put that in perspective, over the last 20 years, only two players voted first-team All-Americans by the Associated Press have gone undrafted in the NBA — Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick (2014) and Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds (2010).
Sees it all
So what gives? Well, much of it has to do with Winston’s physical stature. There are fewer than three dozen players in the league currently listed at 6-foot-1 or under. And Winston, at 6-1 and 185 pounds, also lacks the quick-twitch explosiveness that most smaller guards — and plenty of bigger ones — possess in the pro game.
“Where some guys have five gears, he has three,” Stephens said, chuckling. “But he’s really good within those three.”
Indeed, watching him control the pace of a game, with the basketball on a string and the kind of court vision and passing ability Tom Izzo saw in Winston as a 10th grader and immediately compared to Magic Johnson, it’s hard not to come away impressed. Or to point to a player like Toronto's Fred Van Vleet and not see a future for Winston as an NBA backup.
Winston ranks No. 3 nationally in assist rate behind Murray State’s Ja Morant and UN Wilmington Kai Toews. Morant will be a top-three pick in this year’s draft. He’s behind only Duke’s Zion Williamson — the consensus No. 1 player in the draft — in KenPom’s offensive rating. And Winston is a career 43.3 percent 3-point shooter whose efficiency numbers are nearly identical to those Jalen Brunson put up last year when he led Villanova to the title and was named national player of the year. (Brunson, by the way, went 33rd overall to the Dallas Mavericks as a junior early-entry candidate.)
Around the Michigan State program you don’t have to go back very far to find a similar case study. Draymond Green was a first-team All-American in 2012 — the college coaches’ association even voted him national player of the year over Anthony Davis — and still an afterthought for many NBA teams.
“Draymond Green couldn’t get drafted in the first round,” MSU assistant Dane Fife said of Green, a three-time NBA All-Star — and three-time world champ — with Golden State. “Partly because he didn’t pass the eye test and partly because the measurement of the type of winner somebody is, there really is none.
“The type of winner Cassius is can’t be measured. And the impact he has on the team, the things he does, the person he is, they’ll see.”
Texas Tech assistant coach Glynn Cyprien certainly does. He spent the past four seasons in the NBA working for the Memphis Grizzlies, serving as a pro personnel director and coaching their G-League affiliate.
“And I think he’ll be a good pro, I really do,” said Cyprien, who was part of the front office that drafted Jaren Jackson Jr. fourth overall last June. “Sometimes you can look at guys and say ‘He doesn’t have this’ or ‘He doesn’t have that.' But from everything I’ve seen, based on my pro experience, he’s got the ‘it’ factor.”
Took the wheel
That’s something that Izzo has learned to appreciate even more this winter, as the rest of his roster started unraveling, with key starters going down with injuries and freshmen fumbling their lines as role players. Izzo demanded more of Winston in a leadership role down the stretch, and he delivered.
“And I think that’s where he’s really, really grown,” Izzo said. “He’s a special kid. He’s still the guy that you’d line up and I’m not sure you’d pick him out to be one of the best basketball players in the country. But when you watch the things he does and the way he handles himself and the IQ that he has, which is off the charts, he has found a way to be a hell of a player.”
But what kind of NBA player will he be? There’s really only one way to find out.
Underclassmen face an April 22 deadline to declare for the NBA Draft, but they can go through the process — and even hire an agent under newly-revised rules — before a May 29 deadline to remove their name from consideration and return to college.
Asked Thursday whether he’ll consider going that route to gauge NBA interest or get some feedback, Winston said, “I don’t really know. I haven’t really thought that far yet. Once the season’s over, I’ll sit down and talk about that with my family and coaches. … I’m kind of enjoying the ride right now and I’ll tackle that when it comes.”
He knows there’s still areas he can improve if he stays. Winston’s defense left much to be desired his first two years at Michigan State. And as one NBA scout with a Western Conference team told me, “The question is always going to be, ‘Who’s he gonna guard?’”
But where Winston used to be a swinging gate, he’s at least offering some resistance this season, which was a necessity given the circumstances. Because as Stephens noted, “we don’t have Jaren (Jackson Jr.) back there to cover up for when his guy blows by him.”
His coaches also will tell you that when they’ve challenged Winston to guard someone quicker than him, Winston has stepped up. Another year spent in the weight room will only help.
So would another season running the kind of offense Izzo was forced to adopt after Nick Ward’s injury, one that relies heavily on Winston’s ball-screen mastery.
“The style of play they’re playing now, I think that helps him tremendously,” Cyprien said. “I mean, the NBA game is 80 percent ball screens.”
So forget about those other numbers, the ones that say Winston won’t measure up.
“It’s not even, ‘Somebody needs to take a chance on him,’” Fife said, shaking his head. “If somebody’s smart, they’ll take him.”
When he's ready, that is. And there's the good news for Michigan State. Cassius Winston doesn't mind taking it slow, even if some in the NBA might.
"I don’t know how that works, I don’t know who makes the decisions," he said Thursday, smiling. "But I’m gonna get there when I get there."