INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Justise Winslow is ready to do everything — if that’s what it takes — to help Duke win a national championship.
Don’t put it past him, either. He’s spent the past four NCAA Tournament games proving he can.
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound forward scores. He rebounds. He can chase guards along the perimeter or play as an undersized 4-man wrestling against bigger players inside.
On a team led by a potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick in freshman big man Jahlil Okafor, Winslow has been at his irreplaceable best in March — a big reason why the Blue Devils are back in the Final Four for the 12th time under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski with a roster of just eight scholarship players.
“I mean, it’s March,” Winslow said this week. “It’s now or never. … I’m preparing better than ever for the games. I’m just really focused and locked in, and really excited to play.”
This is a case where the numbers say plenty about Winslow’s impact for the Blue Devils (33-4) heading into Saturday’s national semifinal against Michigan State, yet not nearly enough about his value.
An every-game starter, Winslow ranks in the top three on the team in nine different stat categories on the season with his ability to score, rebound, distribute and get to the line.
He’s been even better in the tournament, both at filling statsheets and masking holes on a roster thinned by the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon in January. Sulaimon was let go for “unable to consistently live up to” team standards.
Winslow is averaging 14 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 steals. He’s also shooting 51 percent from the floor, 58 percent (7 for 12) from the 3-point arc and 82 percent (9 for 11) from the line.
Every one of those numbers tops his season average, while Michigan State coach Tom Izzo pointed out that Winslow has been better at putting the ball on the floor, too.
“I’ve enjoyed watching Winslow grow because for some reason I’ve seen his growth more, maybe because I haven’t seen him much in high school,” Izzo said Thursday. “His tournament run right now has been very, very good.”
Winslow’s fit-any-lineup skills allowed Krzyzewski to juggle his starting lineup in February a few weeks after Sulaimon’s departure, moving Winslow from the wing to the 4 over junior Amile Jefferson and starting guard Matt Jones.
That has coincided with some of Duke’s best play this season, with Winslow creating matchup problems by stressing defenses with his outside shot along with his ability to snatch down a rebound and start the break.
“We just collectively as a team knew we all had to step up each in our individual ways to make up for it,” Winslow said. “There was never anything personal about me having to step up. It was more about as a team we had to come together and we all had to step up our game.”
Senior Quinn Cook has gone up against Winslow in practices. It isn’t fun.
“He’s so strong, so it’s hard to even get the ball when he’s denying,” Cook said. “He’s strong, fast and he knows that. He uses it against us, especially against the smaller guys. I’m glad he’s on my team because I would hate to go against him in a real game.”
But Krzyzewski sees another reason for Winslow’s strong late-season play, rooted in lessons learned during a rough stretch in January.
Battling a shoulder injury, Winslow scored a combined 12 points on 4-for-19 shooting in back-to-back losses at North Carolina State then a shockingly lopsided loss to Miami in Duke’s famously hostile Cameron Indoor Stadium.
His play suffered more as he suffered a cracked rib, the lowest moment coming when he went scoreless in 10 minutes against St. John’s on Jan. 25 — the win that gave Krzyzewski his 1,000th career victory.
Ever since, Krzyzewski said, Winslow has been an athlete and competitor “who is becoming an exceptional basketball player.”
“He learned to play not at 100 percent, where he went on the court and was not fighting an injury but still competing,” Krzyzewski said. “We take for granted that all these kids know all those things, and they don’t. Sometimes that’s the first time you’re injured and how you handle it. But he’s become an outstanding player.”
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