Pandemic turns former Michigan State star Cassius Winston's NBA dream into lonely pursuit

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Times have changed in the sports world, and it’s no different for Cassius Winston.

His senior season at Michigan State cut short, just weeks from potentially capping four years with another run to the Final Four and a shot at that elusive national championship, Winston is being forced to chase the next dream in his life — a career in the NBA — with no real road map.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a seismic shift in the sports world, and for an NBA prospect, the usual path to the league has all but disappeared. No Draft Combine, no individual workouts with teams, no trips to facilities and meeting with front office personnel.

Cassius Winston has been shooting baskets with his brother Khy at the Breslin Center during the pandemic.

Now, it’s just Winston and his brother, Khy, getting some shots up at the Breslin Center when they can and doing what Winston hopes is enough.

“It is weird because I’m basically doing it by myself,” Winston said Monday during a Zoom interview. “I’m trying to prepare for the next step, the ultimate step, without all the tools that you could possibly need to make it happen. So it’s weird just kind of pushing yourself and I don't know how hard. I don't know if I'm going hard enough. I feel like I go hard, but I don't have any kind of baseline to help guide me there. So you’re just figuring out everything on your own.”

Few expected this was how Winston would be spending his time these days, mixing in video games at home while doing his own workouts and adding phone calls and Zoom meetings with NBA teams.

Going to back to last season’s national semifinal loss to Texas Tech, Winston returned to Michigan State for his final season with grand plans. Even through personal tragedy, Winston was on track to do everything he planned to do.

Michigan State had started rolling at what seemed to be the perfect time, winning the final five games of the regular season to win a share of a third straight Big Ten championship. Mission No. 1 had been accomplished with the Big Ten tournament and NCAA Tournament to follow before Winston headed off to the NBA.

Just like that, though, it was done. The team with all the momentum was done before it got going.

“It was unreal,” Winston said. ‘You’re riding that high of playing good basketball, we won the Big Ten championship and we’re going to the tournament. I think we had everything we kind of needed, playing the basketball that we kind of thought we were gonna be playing the whole season. I feel like we reached it at the right time and to kind of just get it taken away all of a sudden, it was just unreal.”

It took a few days to sink in. Winston and the Spartans were riding high March 8. They’d just beaten Ohio State, Winston kissed the Spartan logo at center court and another banner was raised to the rafters.

Cassius Winston gave the traditional farewell to Breslin Center last Sunday, planting a kiss on the “S” logo at midcourt.

Just a few days later, Michigan State’s practice was cut short. The Big Ten tournament was canceled and not long after, the NCAA Tournament followed suit.

“We had a meeting, talked to the guys and then we hung out that night, just chilled and talked about the season,” Winston said. “Just talked about all we’d been through … We had a chance to kind of breathe for a second and actually think about what we went through, the things we did as a team, how guys got better throughout the season. We actually got to sit down and actually think about, ‘We just went through a hell of a year, a hell of a stretch, and still we were champions and still made a lot of great things happen.’ So we can sit here and we can be proud of what we did.”

Plenty happened along the way. It was, indeed, a hell of a journey. Joshua Langford was lost before the season before it started, Winston was forced to cope with the death of his brother one game into the season, injuries piled up and Xavier Tillman and his wife, Tami, gave birth to their second son in February.

Somehow, Michigan State found a way. That journey is on Winston’s mind these days, even as he adjusts to life on his own, not seeing his teammates and coach Tom Izzo on a daily basis.

“It is weird,” Winston said. “All of a sudden, you just don't see them anymore. It's an adjustment. These guys know everything about me, like they have been with me throughout every part of the day. I went from talking to Coach Izz every single day to talking on the phone maybe once a week.

“It’s weird. It’s a world you have to adjust to.”

Winston might be the perfect person to make the adjustment. A class shy of completing his master’s degree, Winston understands where he fits. He’s not a lottery pick, but that hardly means there’s no place for him in the NBA.

He might not have believed that when he first came to Michigan State from UD-Jesuit, but it’s clear to him now he’s more than capable of making the next step.

“That’s the crazy part,” he said. “When I first came to MSU I didn't know I could be in the NBA. I didn't know that was a possibility for me. I know my first goal was to be a good player, like, I want to be able to play at the college level. And then once I became a college player I said, ‘OK, now I’m trying to become a great player one day.’ At every level I kind of make that next step for myself and that goal to the point where I want to make it to the NBA and I feel 100-percent confident that I'm going to make it to the NBA.

“It’s crazy for me to even say that. The first thing is to get my foot in the door. The next thing is get on the floor. So my initial goal is I just want to be a piece on the floor and I want to go out there and help my team win. Once I accomplish that, I'll probably set more goals for myself and keep taking it forward.”

Winston said he’s talked to eight or nine NBA teams and added he’s scheduled to talk to the Pistons next week. He also hopes he’ll be a first-round pick, but most mock drafts have him landing solidly in the second round.

However it plays out, Winston believes there’s a path to an NBA career, one that he’s seen taken from former teammates Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson as well as former Spartans Denzel Valentine and Draymond Green.

“Miles was a lottery pick, Jaren was a lottery pick, Zel was a lottery pick but Zel got hurt, so his story is different,” Winston explained. “Draymond was a second-round pick, so his story is different. So you get a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different views of what it takes to make it.

“I don't know what my story's gonna be … I’ll figure it out when it comes.”

It’s hard to imagine Winston’s story not ending well. He’s done it every level, and while the current path is a winding one, he’s certain where it ends.

“I feel like I'm gonna get there,” Winston said. “I'm gonna find a way to stick. I'll find a way to make things happen. That's what I do. That's just been my story of my life. I'm gonna figure out a way and I believe in myself and I believe I can do it.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau