Justise Winslow Discusses Bouncing Back From ‘Dark Periods’

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The life of an NBA player is something that many fans envy, yet the Miami Heat’s Justise Winslow has had some bumps along the way.

A new report indicates that the four-year player has dealt with some darker periods in his life over the past two seasons.

The Miami Herald noted how Winslow has taken steps forward when it comes to an improvement in his overall game. This season, the 22-year-old is averaging 12.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game, with the point and assist averages marking career highs.

Winslow’s problems developed after he suffered a labrum injury that only allowed him to play in 18 games during the 2016-17 campaign. Those issues then continued when he struggled in making a comeback from the injury last season.

One continuing problem for him was his tendency to dwell on negative aspects of his life both on and off the court. His basketball struggles then converged with other factors.

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“It’s a lot of things, dealing with my old girlfriend, family issues, their health, my health,” Winslow said. “There are just a lot of things that go into it. It’s just that stuff starts to pile up, and you start putting stuff off and the stress levels just keep going up. Then eventually you have something you haven’t handled from months ago and it blows up. It’s not easy being in this league. You get paid a lot of money and we have jobs to do, of course. But we still have the same stresses.”

The Heat drafted Winslow in 2015 with the 10th overall pick out of Duke University, but his natural physical ability was being stunted by overthinking on his part. That led to issues like insomnia, according to Winslow.

“There were times when I didn’t know my place in this league or if I had a place or if I should go to the G League,” he said. “There were times when I couldn’t sleep at night, not sleeping on nights before games. I was up just thinking, on the floor just thinking way too much and just not playing instinctively. I’m getting better with being open and talking about it. I think that’s the biggest key, just finding someone you feel comfortable talking to about it.”

Winslow’s brother, Brandon, was one of those close to him who has noticed a positive change this season. He says that adapting to the realities of playing professional basketball took some time for his brother.

“There’s a lot of pressure to play good, and it blocked him mentally,” he said. “At first, it’s exciting because you’re in the NBA. Then comes the pressure, you have to perform, the comparisons, Twitter. It’s just so much.

“I think it took him a while to learn how to deal with that, how to control it, how to block it out and to find his rhythm. I always tell him before games, just have fun and be happy. Mom tells him to smile. It’s just that he’s finding his way just to go out there and have fun, and not worry about what everyone else thinks or expects — just doing him.”

At the beginning of Winslow’s emerging problems, a friend from his time at Duke, Derek Rhodes, had a first-hand look at his struggles. That’s because he was living with him in Coconut Grove, Fla. Subtle factors first emerged, according to Rhodes.

“I noticed that when I would go to bed after our postgame dinner, he would stay up and he would be playing music,” he recounted. “It would be this very relaxing music, sometimes music with no lyrics. It was just a simple piano track or a simple percussion track that he likes. So I think hearing that at 3 or 4 in the morning was sort of my first alarm that this was something deeper than just a bad game or that this was something bigger than having a tough practice.

“That was sort of the cue for me to like open the door and go check in. There were times where it would be 3, 4 in the morning and I would just stay up until we went to breakfast the next morning and made sure he got to practice.”

Rhodes says that the concerns about Winslow’s mental health continued to manifest.

“There were times where he would wake up in the middle of the night and kind of push my door open and just sit on my bed,” he said. “Then I would wake up and he was there, and then we would start talking.

“I remember one morning Justise had not slept and I remember at dinner the night before after a game he said they had an early practice. I was usually the first person up in the mornings and Justise went and he got a coffee for me and him, and that’s how he woke me up at 6 in the morning. I knew he hadn’t slept, and that was his way of saying, ‘Hey, let’s talk.’”

Winslow’s mother, Robin Davis, noted her son’s reluctance to admit his issues. However, she and other family members could detect a problem.

“He doesn’t want to tell us because he doesn’t want us to worry,” Davis said. “But we can tell. You’re the baby of the family. We know when there’s something bothering you. We know what’s going on. It was a really dark time, especially when he had that surgery on his shoulder.

“Everyone goes through things. People have different weight on their shoulders. You don’t necessarily have to play ball.”

One factor in helping Winslow come to terms with his mental issues were the words of other NBA players who publicly acknowledged their own problems.

“I don’t know [DeMar DeRozan] personally, but to see him talk about it, Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre, it was inspiring because they weren’t afraid to show their vulnerabilities,” he said. “That’s what it’s really all about. The first step is admitting that you need help and that’s so hard to do sometimes, but they did it and they inspired me to start speaking up to my friends or somebody I wanted to reach out and talk to. That was definitely inspiring.”

Winslow took a different route than simply meeting with mental health professionals. Instead, he spoke with people he trusted in his hometown of Houston.

“It wasn’t someone that specialized in therapy or anything like that, but I was reaching out to everyone that I kind of felt safe with,” Winslow admitted. “People that were a safe place for me, a safe space. So those were the people that I reached out to.”

Rhodes, who has since moved to Washington, D.C., visited with Winslow and noted a sharp contrast compared to those past dark periods.

“The guy I visited last week is not the same person I moved in with in so many ways,” he acknowledged. “Obviously, on the court he’s more aggressive, he’s finishing at the rim, he’s shooting well, he’s defending at a high level. But the other side of that is I think he’s more confident in who he is and in himself. He understands what’s important to him.

“He’s not afraid to question things or to ask for help in ways that he might have originally shied away from just on account of his age. I also see Justise pushing those around him more now than he was doing when he got to the NBA. Even for me, that means constantly reminding me that I need to wake up earlier and I need to make my bed every day.”

Winslow’s newfound outlook appears to be working well, with his season statistics having taken an even larger jump since the start of December. One important aspect in this improvement has been his ability to take the place of injured point guard Goran Dragic, helping keep the Heat competitive.

Miami next takes the court on Friday night in Cleveland, hoping to improve their 22-24 season mark.
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Brad Sullivan is a freelance writer for HeatNation.com, having been an avid fan of NBA basketball for more than four decades. During that time, he's watched the Heat evolve from gestation period to expansion team all the way to three-time NBA champions. He'll follow their quest toward again reaching those lofty heights, and do so by offering some perspective along the way.