Each year we bid a fond farewell to some of our favorite Spartans who either graduate or leave early for the professional ranks, and with that in mind I am going to profile the two men’s basketball players from this past season who appear to be headed off on their professional journey: Cassius Winston, a graduating senior, legend, and all-around incredible person, and Xavier Tillman, a junior, who may yet return to school, another incredible man and basketball player.
These two gentlemen could not possibly be better representatives for the school if they do both remain in the draft, and both have bright professional futures ahead of them. The NBA is not an easy league to stick in, but both Xavier and Cassius will have great chances at long playing careers in the NBA. Before I get to Cassius Winston’s scouting report, prospects and comparisons, and fit and potential landing spots, I want to give a brief primer on the NBA vs college basketball and the step-up in expectations. This should help clarify the parameters of my evaluation of Cassius and, later, Xavier as NBA prospects.
NBA vs. College ball primer
Generally on this site, and as college basketball fans, we tend to view our own players in the best light possible, and tend to view them with a bit of a bias because we mostly watch college basketball. But there are significant differences in the NBA and college games, especially as the paradigms in the NBA have shifted in the last ten years or so.
The “modern” NBA puts on a better display of basketball than at any earlier time in the history of the sport. I am not denigrating earlier generations, or saying that those guys/coaches/teams couldn’t play, rather, I am pointing out how far the sport has come, collectively. The both the mean and median NBA athlete today is stronger, more skilled, better at shooting, and better trained and taken care of. NBA teams have come to maximize efficient scoring as paramount, because... well... it is! But while there is a lot of talk about “analytics” all that scoring efficiency means is maximizing the expected and possible points per possession.
This does not mean the complete cessation of the “mid-range” shot as many seem to believe or caricature, rather, it means maximizing the actual talents, shooting and scoring capabilities of every player on a team. It means that staffs and front-offices are asking bad mid-range shooters to shoot fewer of those shots; it means they are maximizing their best scorers’ attempts from the most advantageous spots on the court; it means maximizing spacing by having as many three-point shooters on the court as possible, which then opens up driving lanes, further increasing attempts at the rim and trips to the free-throw line.
These tendencies towards efficiency, shooting, spacing, passing (on some teams), and leveraging mis-matches, of course, still requires incredible players and these schemes are still dependent on coaching, team cohesion, and actually hitting shots. When defenses stiffen in the playoffs mid-range shots become more valuable, on the margins, because they are often more-open. Finding defenders capable of switching pick-and-roll actions, defending in space and, as much as possible, capable of defending in the post, protecting the rim, and rebounding also proves crucial for teams; our own Draymond Green, of course, typifies this exact kind of defender.
More than ever, GM’s and coaches must find small innovative ways to leverage players, skills, and combinations in an ever-evolving game. How then does Cassius Winston fit into the modern NBA? What follows is my evaluation of Cassius, which agrees with and differs from other scouting reports of him at various points.
NBA scouting report for Cassius Winston
General info and initial scout:
6’1”, ~190lbs, birthdate: 2/28/1997 (~23.75 years old at the start of the 2020-21 NBA season)
Wingspan (TBD, but appears to be about +3-4), not an explosive leaper, not particularly quick, good hesitation and pace-control, crafty, knows how to keep his dribble alive and how to use pivot foot effectively, showed improved strength over the course of his career, but has poor eating and sleeping habits. If he corrects his personal habits there is considerable room for physical improvement. Very good hands, terrific, consistent shooting form (despite hitch, which has lessened over time, and awkward knee bend due to quad-weakness). Has greatly improved his step-back and side-step shooting comfort in the last two years.
Very good PnR ball-handler, though occasionally bothered by length; capable of manipulating the defense both in the initial action and on drives, and through re-screens. Developed tremendously as an off-ball shooter coming off pin-downs and flare-screens (did not do this very much at all his first two years). Can have body-language issues, but generally a terrific competitor who has succeeded more often than not against more athletic match-ups. Play suffered serious unevenness this season due to the passing of his brother (this affected him on and off the court, clearly) - he had fully rebounded to top form by the close of the season. Heady, smart, capable thinker, should adjust easily to the intellectual aspects of the NBA. Pace, size, length, and strength are all concerns - physical transformation is imperative.
Offense: Cassius enters the NBA as an elite three-point shooter off the catch or the dribble, an NBA-solid mid-range shooter (the best mid-range shooters in the NBA are generally between 40% and 48%), and a perfectly respectable finishing rate at the rim for a smaller, less-athletic guard. His shooting numbers would likely be even better with better spacing and if he was not the #1 option the last two years (his best percentages of his career came his sophomore year when he was on a closer-to-NBA talent-level team with Jaren Jackson jr, Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, and Nick Ward all taking up attention from defenses). He is a very good open-shot shooter, though he suffered from leg-fatigue down the stretch in 2018-19. W
Cassius has proven to be a very solid passer and play-maker at the college level with a career average of six apg, and an assist% over 40 (though mainly as the only play-maker). His passing location can sometimes be erratic, especially on lobs and when he is under pressure, he is a very good live-dribble passer, and adept at passing inside the arc, although NBA length will require an adjustment. Projects as a very solid back-up point guard offensively, and more than capable of playing off-ball as a shooter.
Defense: Winston is not a good defender. He lacks the quickness, strength, and focus to consistently prevent drives to the rim, and often gets hung up on screens. How much of this may be attributed to fatigue due to being the focal point of the offense on every possession is an open question, but the results are not positive. Decent but not great steal-rate over his career (nearly one steal per game for his career at Michigan State). Improved dramatically in his last two years, but is barely scratching replacement-level defense. Physical improvement will be key as he will be hunted repeatedly in the professional ranks.
Between-the-ears: As I note earlier, he is a terrific student, incredibly tough-minded, and very even-keeled on the court. Not a demonstrative leader, but an effective organizer. Terrific competitor who finds a way to make winning plays. A consistent late-clock shot-maker, and an effective run-breaker (has a good sense of the moment).
NBA prospects & comparisons
Will Cassius Winston stick in the NBA? I believe so. There are a number of smaller, less athletic guards that have succeeded (i.e. stuck around and played multiple seasons) in the NBA including, recently: JJ Barea, Ky Bowman, Jalen Brunson, Chris Chiozza, Mike Conley, Quinn Cook, Devonte Graham, Tyus Jones, Corey Joseph, Kyle Lowry, TJ McConnell, Patty Mills, Monte Morris, Shabazz Napier, Raul Neto, Ish Smith, Tremont Waters, Trae Young, Jeremy Lin, Shelvin Mack, Trey Burke, Fred VanVleet and on, and on.
Now, while this set of players covers everyone from two-way players to all-stars and NBA champions, all of them have similarities and comparative advantages and disadvantages to Cassius Winston. Most of these players are better athletes and defenders than Winston coming in, but, as I note, with a serious dedication to transforming himself physically, improving into a truly replacement-level NBA defender is not out of the question. Winston is a more accomplished passer and a more talented passer than many of these players were heading into the NBA, and, most of all, Winston is one of the best shooters at the point guard position to enter the NBA in a long time. For example, Devonte Graham who took the reins as the Charlotte Hornets starting point guard this season (and deservedly so) was regarded as a great shooter (and not much else) heading into the draft a couple of seasons ago, and he has blossomed after a couple of seasons. Well Cassius Winston is a significantly better shooter than Graham was as a draft-prospect (Graham shot 76%, 43%, and 41% from the ft line, two-point, and three-point). Ultimately, I do think that Graham and VanVleet are the best
There is always a market for heady, sweet-shooting, good-passing back-up point guards, and it is not inconceivable that Winston can fill this role for a number of teams for many years to come in the NBA. The swing-skills are his physical transformation and his improvement on defense, but these are less-important swing skills for a reserve guard than offensive swing-skills, which Cassius simply does not have to worry about. Be highly skeptical of anyone that says that a 23 year-old is maxed out of their development potential, most of the guys in the above list made themselves into NBA players while they were in the NBA. Izzo and Winston have laid a wonderful foundation for Cassius, he now has to take the next steps.
NBA fit, draft context (position-ranking), and potential landing spots
Winston’s fit is pretty clear: teams that need shooting, teams that need improved back-up point-guard play, teams that need passing, and teams that are not already vulnerable on defense (or who can afford to let Winston develop the deficiencies in his game). It turns out that EVERY NBA team needs shooting, which really helps Cassius; however, the challenge he faces is that there are a number of other guards in this draft that have not-dissimilar profiles as prospects: Payton Pritchard, Immanuel Quickley, Tre Jones, Cole Anthony, Tyrese Maxey, Kira Lewis, Nico Mannion, Grant Riller, Devon Dotson, Tyrell Terry, Malachi Flynn, Ashton Hagans, Myles Powell, Jared Butler, Sam Merrill, Ty-Shon Alexander, Jordan Ford, and others.
That is a long list! I would roughly group Cassius in the second-tier of players of this ilk behind Anthony, Maxey, and Lewis. I think Winston should be considered in the same group as Pritchard, Mannion, Jones, Quickley, Terry, Dotson, Flynn, and Riller. Of this group, I believe that Pritchard, Terry, Dotson, and Winston are the best players - Jones will probably be drafted higher (he looks like a solid defender at the next level, and has better athleticism, but he will struggle mightily and possibly flame-out early if he does not drastically improve his shooting), and Mannion may as well (though I think he is overrated as a prospect, couldn’t really get his team to win, didn’t shoot well, has short arms, and is only a bit ahead of Cassius as a defender). But Winston is the best shooter in this entire group of guards with only Pritchard, Tyrell Terry (possible future Steph Curry), and Quickley as in the same conversation, though none of them have shot at Cassius’ level with as much volume.
Ultimately, I would peg Cassius as a late first-rounder or, more likely, early-to-mid second rounder. Holding all things equal (no trades, and holding draft order as it is currently projected) that would put Cassius in the range of picks #25-45.
The teams picking in this range (currently) include: New York (x2), Boston (x2), OKC, Toronto, LA, Dallas, Charlotte, Minnesota, Philly (x2), Sacramento (x2), Washington, NOLA (x2), Memphis, San Antonio, Portland, and Orlando. Of these teams, based on their current depth charts and rosters, the following teams might seem most in need of a guard like Cassius Winston:
New York: always in flux (so despite having multiple young point guards under contract they may flip some to make a trade), in dire need of shooting and passing.
OKC: Presti is always making moves and may trade some assets to set-up the long-term future of the franchise. Because all three of the point guards on the roster are valued assets, any number could be moved, which, in turn, would open up a need for a point guard like Winston.
Toronto: Lowry is the only point guard under contract for the 2020-21 season, and the entire back-court is off the books the following off-season. Getting at least one developmental point guard under contract is a must this summer (VanVleet may be too expensive as a UFA this summer, and even if they re-sign him another point guard is still a need).
LA Lakers: the current point-guards under contract include Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso, and Rajon Rondo (all on cheap contracts, Caruso is a fan favorite, Cook never claimed a rotation spot, this team is DESPERATE for three-point shooting around LeBron and AD).
Minnesota: only have one point-guard under contract (Russell), don’t care about defense anyways, want more three-point shooting as they are trending towards a five-out three-point bombing style of play.
Philly: one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league and in need of improved back-up point-guard play on a rookie-scale deal.
Sacramento: in need of three-point shooting, have two guards already under-contract, but are losing two of their better reserve guards.
San Antonio: possibly in need of a sixth-guard. They like three-point shooters and smart players may be in further need if they trade one of their guards.
Portland: have no point-guard depth to speak of, could use more three-point shooting behind Lillard and McCollum.
Orlando: lose both back-up point-guards to UFA, in need of more three-point shooting to pair with Fultz, Vucevic, Bamba, and Isaac.
If I had to guess, I think we will see Winston getting drafted by the LA Lakers, Portland Trailblazers, or Philadelphia 76ers. Time will tell, but I think Winston has a great chance to stick in the league and play his way into a second contract.
Now, one more time, for old times’ sake: