College Basketball

Justise Winslow’s Houston high school experience key in development

Duke's Justise Winslow and Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson go after the loose ball in the ACC tournament.
Duke's Justise Winslow and Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson go after the loose ball in the ACC tournament. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Justise Winslow was 11 when he arrived at St. John’s, an exclusive, affluent private school that spans several blocks near downtown Houston. His older brother, Josh, already was enrolled, so Justise was eager to follow in his footsteps.

And Winslow still remembers his first impression of the place that helped shape him into a potential NBA draft lottery pick after just one year at Duke.

"Just as a young kid, one of my first things was, there are a lot of white people at this school," Winslow said, laughing at the memory. "The whole race thing, just as a kid, kind of blew me away at first. I've become very close with a lot of white people. That was my first thought about the school, but I'm just very thankful for the experience that I had there."

Winslow may have initially felt out of place at St. John’s, but he found his niche and left his mark on the campus. There is a large mural outside the field house that depicts him, from behind, throwing down a two-handed dunk with his legs spread, like wings flying through the air. Inside the gym, his two Gatorade Texas state player of the year banners hang next to the scoreboard.

And in the hallways, there are two more pictures of him from his freshman year. The first shows him about to finish a one-handed dunk where his elbow is about even with the rim. And the other is after the team’s state championship win, when he scored 43 points and had the game-winning assist to his older brother for the buzzer-beating lay-up.

St. John’s, with an enrollment of about 580 high-school students, plays in the smaller Southwest Preparatory Conference (SPC), which spans Texas and Oklahoma. And, as anyone who has seen the 6-6, 225-pound Winslow dominate during the NCAA tournament would expect, he was a man among boys in that league.

"It was head over shoulders. It was actually unreal to watch," former teammate and close friend J.T. Trauber said. “No one could guard him. You saw double teams, triple teams.

"It was fun to watch and fun to play with, without a doubt."

And the experience played a critical role in Winslow’s development. He had to do it all for St. John’s, so that forced him to became more versatile, one of his greatest strengths today. And it helped him develop the patience necessary to be a good team player.

"For us, he was basically our primary ball-handler. He guarded the best player on the other team, whether it be a guard or a post," said Harold Baber, the coach at St. John’s. "At our level, he could even dominate bigger guys in the post."

At any point, Winslow could have gone to play at any larger school in Houston. He said he considered that at times. Had he left St. John’s, he wouldn’t have had to bring homework with him on the road to AAU tournaments, sitting in a room with Trauber working while the rest of the Houston Hoops team was just hanging out (the Traubers are one of the white families Winslow has grown close to, as J.T.’s father, Steve, and his mother, Leticia, are Winslow’s godparents).

But Winslow stayed.

"I think staying at the school made me a better person and a better player," he said. "That's something that led to me being more versatile, the fact that I wasn't playing around All-Americans. I did have shooters and talented guys around me, but I didn't have a Jahlil (Okafor) or a Tyus (Jones). That's something that really helped my game out. I had to bring the ball up the court, I had to post up, I had to get people open with screens.

"I just tried to make my teammates better, give them confidence. They weren't the most talented guys, but I had to play with them. I loved playing with them."

St. John’s made four state finals and won three championships in Winslow’s four years, losing only his junior season (prior to the win his freshman year, the school’s last basketball title came in 1979). Winslow’s dad, Rickie, a member of the University of Houston Phi Slama Jama Final Four teams in the early 1980s, was an assistant coach on those teams, too.

It was the first title that was the sweetest for Winslow, though, as it was the one he won with his older brother, Josh.

With 12 seconds left, the score was tied at 67. Justise, who had scored 43 points, had the ball at the top of the key. He shook his defender with a crossover dribble, went left to the basket and went up like he was going to shoot — except he fired a post-to-post pass to Josh, who finished with a lay-up as time expired.

"I just remember him making that lay-up, and me chasing him around the gym and ultimately I caught him, we dog-piled and the fans rushed the court," Winslow said. "Probably to this date, that has probably been my favorite basketball memory.”

He paused and smiled again, returning to the present moment with Duke.

"Hopefully we can do something special in these next three games."

The fact that Winslow is smiling and laughing in an interview is noteworthy, as its a stark departure from his normal all-business, buttoned-up persona when dealing with the media. The looser version of Winslow that has emerged in his hometown as Duke works toward a Final Four bid is much closer to the Winslow those close to him see, the funny guy who lights up a room when he enters.

Winslow is clearly comfortable in Houston, as he recorded 21 points and 10 rebounds in the Sweet 16 victory over Utah, a throwback to his days at St. John’s as a double-double machine, Baber said. Winslow was the only player to find success from behind the 3-point line in NRG Stadium, shooting 3-for-4 while every other player Friday’s two region semifinals combined to shoot 10-for-53.

When Duke arrived Wednesday, about 60 friends and family from the area surprised him at the hotel for a welcome home, let’s go Duke rally. Thursday was his 19th birthday. And Friday, he carried Duke to the Elite Eight.

Not a bad homecoming.

"He's not yet where he wants to be. He is headed in that direction, but he seems to have tunnel vision about, 'this is what I want, and this is how I can get there,’” Baber said. "He's a Duke guy now. He was at St. John's, and we loved every bit of it, but he is a Duke guy now."

Twitter: @laurakeeley

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