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Cassius Winston - With smarts and smiles

The junior guard is already mentioned among Spartan greats

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Iowa
Cassius Winston has every reason to smile
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Cassius Winston himself really doesn‘t remember the most famous story from his childhood days but his dad insists that it happened. Many years ago when Winston was just a little kid he visisted a Six Flags Entertainment Park with his family. Following his early life passion, somewhere he found a basketball and started to dribble it. It didn‘t take long until the onlookers started to get amazed by the already advanced handles of that scrawny little boy and decided to throw coins at his feet in appreciation. It drew a big laugh from the Winston family of course and still does to this day. If the people who saw Cassius Winston way back then knew who they were watching, they might have even asked for an early autograph.

Today the little kid with the fascinating dribble has grown up, he is a man now and the starting point guard for the Michigan State Spartans basketball program. Many people consider him one of the best playmakers in all of college basketball and the next in line on a long list of prominent point guards who have donned the green and white under the watchful eyes of head coach Tom Izzo. Unlike those bystanders in the Entertainment Park, the Hall of Famer knew exactly what he was watching when he first saw Cassius Winston during a recruiting trip in 2013.

Tom Izzo knew what he was watching

”Somebody told me that Tom Izzo was in the building,” Cassius Winston remembers the day when he met his future coach in 9th grade. “I was wondering for whom he had come out. So I didn‘t feel any pressure, just a little bit of energy.” Izzo immediately loved what he saw from the tiny point guard with the headband. “When I first saw Cassius I thought he might be one of the most cerebral basketball players I‘ve ever seen,” Izzo recalls of first watching the young prodigee. “I actually thought that he could be the best point guard ever at MSU or at a lot of other places. My point guards over the years, Mateen (Cleaves), Kalin (Lucas), Denzel (Valentine)… all were wired a little differently. But I can honestly say none of them had a higher basketball IQ than this guy.”

He actually told Cassius‘ mother something along those lines back then but Wendi Winston was having none of it… at first. “I thought it was a sales pitch, to be honest with you. I mean my kid was a freshman in high school,” laughs Wendi. Becoming a basketball star was not exactly what she had envisioned for her son. Raising Cassius Winston and his two brothers Zachary and Khy on the Westside of Detroit, academics always came first for the woman of the Winston household. Her husband Reginald though also had other visions for his kids and especially for Cassius. ”I always dreamed of him playing basketball,” Reginald Winston remembers of the early days of his fatherhood. “He started to love the game as well so I told him to go out and take 500 shots each day.” When the young Cassius was done, he would come inside the house to report to his father. “Then I told him to go out and take 500 shots with his left hand,” laughs Reginald. “He would understand and raise the bar by himself. He went out and worked really hard on his game.”

When it was time to make a decision for a high school though, Wendi Winston made sure that the focus wasn‘t on knocking down three pointers but on education. The family chose the prestigous private school University of Detroit Jesuit, an instititution much more known for its academic prowess than its athletic achievements. “UD wasn‘t a basketball school,” says Wendi Winston. “To be honest, when he got there I almost thought it was a bit unfair because basketball was such a huge part of Cassius‘ life.” Yet the decision proved to be the right one. Even though Cassius at first was weary about going to school with “so many genius kids who dream of owning businesses one day”, he soon found his place in the classroom and on the court. “I turned into a different student there,” remembers Cassius, who recalls being upset with average grades for the first time in his life starting out at UD Jesuit and has been known to enjoy math particularly ever since. “It was a whole different world but it helped me a lot going forward.”

“MSU was just home”

As outlined by Tom Izzo‘s interest, not going to a traditional basketball school didn‘t hurt his athletic aspirations either, it actually opened up new opportunities. “He was not only a great player but a great student”, says Patrick Donnelly, the basketball coach at UD Jesuit. “That afforded him the opportunity to be recruited by schools like Stanford and Harvard.” In the end though, Tom Izzo‘s “sales pitch”, his tough love and the well known family atmosphere at Michigan State left the Ivy League and academic powerhouses in the rearview mirror. “At the end of the day MSU was just home,” says Cassius after his commitment in September 2015 as part of a star studded freshmen class that included five star recruits Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford in addition to four star Ohio center Nick Ward. Before he left for college, Winston made sure to put his mark on the Tigers program like nobody else before him.

His senior year he won Michigan‘s prestigious Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award, did not lose a single game and led his team to its first Class A State Championship. Former NBA star and current Big Ten Network analyst Jim Jackson recently asked Winston before a game at the Breslin Center: “Do you remember how many points you got in that title game?” Winston answered “32”. When Jackson jokingly noted that his teammates probably didn‘t get many touches then, Winston replied with a smile: “Well, we got the state title trophy, so they got to touch that.” It was a point well taken and a short glimpse into the kind of player and kid Cassius Winston is. Laid back and chill off the court, a confident assassin with clear goals before his eyes on the hardwood. And a little smile is usually never far away with him.

Because of that sympathetic confidence, his smarts and numerous accomplishments a lot of people around the Spartans program knew plenty about the smallish point guard well before he arrived on campus in East Lansing. His beginnings at Michigan State though proved a little tougher than many expected. “His first year was a learning year and probably a bit frustrating for Cassius,” says Tom Izzo of the 2016/2017 season. Winston‘s showed plenty of offensive ability as he recorded the second most assists ever (182) by a Michigan State freshman, only trailing some fellow named Magic Johnson. But he also struggled with turnovers and adjusting to the physical play in the Big Ten, something that especially hurt him on the defensive end. As has been the case with many prominent players before him, that drew the ire of Tom Izzo and earned Winston some longer stretches on the bench. But as you hope to do with learning experiences, Winston took it the right way.

A true learning experience

“When the season was done everyone went home for about four weeks to take some time off and get away from the game,” notes Tom Izzo about a season that came to a close with a second round loss to a dominant Kansas team in the NCAAs. “I think Cassius went home for like three days and then went to work.” Winston fell in love with the MSU weight room and basically lived in there. He also developed a special relationship with Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, who then entered his senior year at MSU and is as highly regarded in Spartan lore for his leadership as few others. Even though Winston and Nairn both competed for the starting point guard spot, the Bahamas native did everything he could to help out the emerging sophomore. “You have to give up a lot of yourself in a team environment,” Tum Tum said selflessly and went on to make Winston a better player by going at him as hard as he could in practice – something the usually relaxed Winston needed. “He could foul me, he could hit me in the face but then we hugged and kissed afterwards,” laughs Cassius about the grueling training sessions with his diminiutive but chised veteran teammate. “He embraced me with open arms and tried to make me the best player I could be, something I really appreciated.”

So did his coach who was amazed at how close two players could grow even though they were both shooting for the same spot in the rotation. He even played them together from time to time, allowing Winston to move off the ball some. It wouldn‘t be enough though to salvage a season that started with National Championship aspirations, yet ended early in a crushing first weekend defeat to Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Winston‘s personal numbers went up across the board as he led the Big Ten in three point shooting percentage and assists, earning him third team all conference honors. But falling short of the team‘s ultimate goal left a sour taste in his mouth. With star players Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr leaving among others, it was clear that the Spartans would be Winston‘s team entering his junior year. If they wanted to return to national prominence once more, it would fall on the slender 6 foot point guard‘s shoulders. And so far, he has proven to be more than up for this challenge.

With smarts and physical toughness

Winston had already worked hard on his body following his freshman year but he doubled up on that task last summer. He started to eat more like an athlete, cutting down on his favorites Hot Cheetos and Starburst. He also continued his tireless work in the weight room and the results are showing on the court, especially on defense. “I spent a lot of time getting my body ready and getting stronger,” knows “Cash” about the importance of his work. “There‘s always someone bigger and stronger out there and now I‘m able to battle him and push him the whole game.” According to MSU assistant coach Mike Garland that hasn‘t always been the case with Winston: “Fighting guys off their spots and dealing with physicality, he wouldn‘t have done that last year.” Tom Izzo even named a defensive drill after him. “If people would‘ve told me a that a few years I would have probably laughed out loud,” Izzo smiles. “Cash might have done the same.”

While his improved athletisism, defense and physical play have drawn a lot of the attention, the biggest draw watching Cassius Winston still remains his creative yet deadly offensive game. Even though he is quick to remind everyone that he actually can dunk a basketball - “it‘s on Youtube” - Winston relies on smarts, his natural passing ability and what many describe as an old man‘s game, skills derived from a bygone era yet as effective as ever. Channeling his laid back personality off the court, he averages 18.8 points and dishes out 7.4 assists per game on it. His average of 32.8 minutes per game proves how irreplaceable he is for MSU, especially considering how he holds a lot of the Spartans‘ strings in his hands and can rarely take a play off.

Being a great point guard is something few people can really learn over the course of their career, it usually comes natural to them. In Winston‘s case it was visible from the get go and is even more apparent now on the big stage. “Cash is running this team like a quarterback is running a football team,” says Tom Izzo, never shy about a reference to his second favorite sport. “On top of that he has the ability like a Magic Johnson to see people where they are not.” That skill almost makes it tough for his teammates at times, in a good way of course. “With Cash you have to be locked into the game all the time because at any moment you could get the ball,” notes sophomore big man Xavier Tillman, often the recipient of Winston‘s highlight reel passes. “You always have to be ready for it.” With his crafty dribble and profound understanding of how to use picks, Winston is able to constantly penetrate opposing defenses and run MSU‘s advanced sets to perfection. He also is the driving motor behind the Spartans‘ vaunted transition attack.

With the full trust of his coach

Even if it took him a little while, today Cassius Winston has earned the full trust of his coach. “I‘m a pretty stressful guy but I never worry when the ball is in his hands,” says Tom Izzo, who early on in Winston‘s career probably got a few more grey hairs because of his playmakers‘ turnovers. “Boy he‘s exceeded what I thought he‘d be able to do this season.” Whenever Winston was called to the sideline earlier in his career, the conversation between the point guard and his famous coach was more one sided as Izzo pointed out mistakes and voiced his frustration, always looking for something he knew his point guard had in him. Today though, things have changed. Izzo notes that now he often turns to his floor general for input and asks him what he sees. It is a trust well earned.

Cassius Winston, a proud trash talker never afraid of taking a big shot, is fully embracing the role of a leader for Michigan State and is focused on doing everything in his power to help his team succeed. “My job on this team is to make plays,” says Winston, who if he stays healthy is on pace to break the Big Ten career assists record currently held by MSU great Mateen Cleaves. “However that is, by assisting or making shots.” That approach along with his natural ability to guide a team has him looking at All Conference and national honors soon. No matter what comes his way on the basketball court, Tom Izzo is certain that his point guard will succeed in life. “I have a great relationship with him and I‘m going to keep pushing him,” Izzo says. “Because I think he has a lot to give in a lot of places – with his intelligence, his ability to speak, basketball of course, too. But no matter what he puts his mind to, this kid has a very high ceiling.” Izzo looks down and thinks for a moment. Then he says: “Actually, I don‘t think he has a ceiling to be honest with you. And that is a great thing.”

As the Spartans are entering their final part of the season, they will continue to look to Cassius Winston to raise their ceiling as a team to new heights. Just like Izzo thought he could do when he saw him in 9th grade. It might not earn him money this time around like all those years back at the Six Flags Entertainment Park. But it would sure cement his place among the all time great point guards at a school known for having some pretty good ones over the years…