Justise Winslow has become more than just Duke's other freshman

Freshman Justise Winslow's elevated play has helped Duke advance to the Final Four

Three days after his 19th birthday, Justise Winslow climbed a ladder, snipped a piece of basketball net and wiggled it loose.

If there was ever a time to be animated, to let loose a little, it was now. Here in his hometown, Winslow had helped Duke defeat Gonzaga to advance to the Final Four. In two games at Houston's NRG Stadium, Winslow had taken center court, stealing the spotlight away from fellow freshman luminaries Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones.

Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski had been urging Winslow to show more emotion, but he didn't oblige. Winslow raised the netting over his head, gave a wave, then stepped down and tucked it into the clasp of his hat.

If there was a point to prove — that he wasn't a third wheel among Duke freshmen — he had done it by averaging 18.5 points in two tough games on one of college basketball's biggest stages.

Winslow came to college not wanting to be overshadowed. He had been an age-group club teammate of the more celebrated Okafor and Jones and was looking to establish his own identity, which is one reason why he nearly chose UCLA over Duke.

Winslow said he was "pretty close" to playing for the Bruins. He liked the coaching staff, and playing near his brother, who lived in Los Angeles, would have felt like home, he said.

"It's a great program," Winslow said, "A lot of tradition. So it would've been an honor."

But Jones and Okafor, who had already committed to Duke, peppered him with text messages. Together, they told him, they could accomplish something special.

When it came time for the announcement, Winslow kept them in the dark.

Okafor went so far as to stream Winslow's news conference through the computer in his coach's office, stealing away during practice to check on what was happening.

"My coaches were cool with it," Okafor recently recalled. "They understood how important it was."

When Winslow and the rest of Duke's freshman class arrived on campus, Okafor received most of the attention. He had been rated by more than one publication as the top high school player in the country. Jones was the top point guard.

Winslow was not as polished. His ball-handling needed tightening, and his jump shot was spotty.

Early this season, Winslow was tentative and often deferred to his more established teammates. Then he injured his ribs and his shoulder, which also drained his assertiveness.

But late in the Atlantic Coast Conference season, Winslow started harnessing his athleticism. Winslow is 6 feet 6, but at 225 pounds with the build of a football player, Krzyzewski plays him at power forward.

Winslow began pounding through defenses like a running back fighting for yardage. He broke through against Virginia when he collected his first double-double, then collected two more in a row, including one against Notre Dame.

His shooting came around — he has made 41.7% of his three pointers — and on defense, his size and quickness overwhelmed opponents.

"He does everything," Okafor said. "Steals, blocks, obviously he can score. He can defend pretty much one through four. Five if necessary."

And now he is zipping up the NBA draft boards — as high as No. 5 in the mock draft of one popular Internet site.

During a regional semifinal game against Utah, when Duke's offense was sluggish and no other Blue Devils player made a three-pointer, Winslow made three of four and finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Early in the next game, against Gonzaga, he injured his ankle but returned to score 16 points.

Late in that game, Gonzaga was down by only three points and still had a chance to win when Winslow scored seven consecutive points, capping the run with a three-pointer.

When his shot from behind the arc went in, he bounced around, looked quickly into the hometown crowd and let out a howl.

There was that emotion the coach had been requesting. But that was as far as the celebration went.

There would be at least one game to be played, more work to do.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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