Hart Gets The Start And Winslow, Little Are Alright
For the record: Every NBA player wants to be a starter. Of course, most will accept bench roles if they are unable to earn one of those coveted five spots, and some may even find they are better off as a reserve, but even the most enlightened , team first individuals always want this start. There aren’t too many axioms that cover professional sports, but the desire to start is one.
Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups, as a former player, knows these things. So when it came time to break the news to Josh Hart, Justise Winslow and Nassir Little on which of the three would be the small forward’s starter at the start of the 2022-23 regular season, he probably knew he’d had two. difficult conversations on the horizon. But he also knows that disappointment is far greater than a lack of transparency.
“It’s just a relief to know if it’s you or the other guy,” Billups said. “It’s just a relief to somehow know that you can settle into your role.”
So, after evaluating the three during training camp and pre-season, both in terms of their own performance and how they functioned alongside established starters, Billups came to the conclusion that Hart would join Damian. Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic when the Blazers start their season Oct. 19 in Sacramento, not just because of his skills, but the way he approaches the game. And once he made that decision, he was quick to deliver.
“Josh just gives us something that we don’t have in this starting unit, the edge and the fire that he plays with, I think, helps this unit,” Billups said. “His rebounding ability, the way he guards, the push he gives us on the rebound, I just think it’s great for the unit. It’s great for Dame, it’s great for Ant, it relieves Nurk trying to get all the rebounds in. I just felt it was best for the team and wanted to do it as soon as I knew so we could have some clarity.
Hart, who averaged 4.0 points on 50% shooting, 7.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals in three 23.3 minutes per game this preseason, started in 118 of his 296 career appearances since being selected from Villanova with the 30th pick of the 2017 Draft. He has therefore been a part-time starter since entering the league – he started 55 games in his first two seasons, both with the Lakers — and after starting all but one game last season, he feels like he’s proven he’s ready for the full-time job.
“I was a starter last year, I think I proved I could be a starter in this league,” Hart said. “That’s what I expect. Just play per game like I play my game, let everything else fall as it should.
Breaking the good news to Hart was the easy part. But while the decision might have been difficult for Billups – each player had a unique case to begin with – the way Winslow and Little took the news showed both respect for their coach and a certain amount of self-awareness, two traits that aren’t exactly guaranteed in the league.
For Winslow, who averaged 7.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.0 blocks in two preseason games, learning he would come off the bench was disappointing. But as a veteran who has also started in around a third of his career appearances, he is well aware of the role sacrifice plays in a team’s success. Many players talk about being a “star in their role” these days, and Winslow sees that as his charge now, even if that role isn’t on the bench.
“I wouldn’t say I was upset, but I wanted to start. The coach is the leader of this team and that’s what he thinks is best right now, so I’m going to step into my role and go all out,” said Winslow, who learned the importance of being a team player under Udonis Haslem in Miami, one of the NBA’s most respected veterans.” But just keep trying to build. Nothing’s really concrete, ever, in the NBA. Just stick with it.” You have to commit to the season, you have to sacrifice yourself.
“That’s one of the things I told the guys before I started is that you have to be ready to sacrifice. Right now that’s one of the things I have to sacrifice, but I still have to go out there and be myself and play my game.
As for Little, he realized he wasn’t ready for a starting role after undergoing shoulder surgery in January and abdominal surgery in May. While his improvement in his third year was one of the few bright spots to come out of Portland’s 2021-22 season – he averaged 13.1 points on 45% shooting from the field and 40% shooting on three, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists in January — he was not allowed to return to basketball until training camp began. It just wasn’t enough time to get his fitness and pace back to where they were last season, something he readily admits.
“I get it. Honestly, I agree with (Billups),” Little said. “I was like, ‘The Nas I was in January, I’m not him anymore.’ If I was that, that’s probably a different conversation, but I told him I think he made the right decision. There was no ill will.
“Beyond that, Josh deserved it. He played really well in camp, just the way he pushes the ball in transition, I think that allows guys like Dame and Ant to open up. I wanted to say what I said about the decision they’re making is what I’m rolling with I think it’s an honor for Josh and I’m going to keep working and getting into my groove and play it.
While the decision has been made, there’s no guarantee Billups will stick with a starter all season — in fact, he specifically noted he might not. Hart, Winslow and Little also know this, which is a good source of motivation. But more importantly, Billups knows he’ll need all three at their best, whether as starters or backups, for Portland to be successful this season. Everyone in the NBA might want to start, but no more than they want to win.
“(Hart) played pretty well, he deserved it, he did a good job. The other two guys he was competing against, Justise and Nas, will be big parts of our team this year in their own way,” Billups said. “The three guys are going to have such a big impact on our team. He who begins, who knows if he will finish. We just don’t know. But I really like all three guys and I think for us to be a good team, all three of them have to play well every time they play.