EAST LANSING, Mich. — By the time Cassius Winston steps onto the court for warmups, his intention is simple. He’s already eaten, showered and spent 20 minutes in what Michigan State players call “the boots” — giant recovery devices they strap around their legs — so now all that’s left is this time for tension relief. He takes crazy shots, has some fun and lets any sense of nervousness ooze out until there’s none left.
Winston spends the next couple of hours outsmarting opponents, beating them not necessarily with his size or speed but with his skill. He describes himself as a poised and confident playmaker who enjoys when his Spartans finds themselves in high-stakes games, such as when Maryland visits Monday and the teams compete for first place in the Big Ten. He’d rather play in a game in which the Spartans are up by two with a couple of minutes left than in a blowout.
“That's the fun of the game,” Winston said. “That's the whole rush of it.”
And, no, he’s still not worried.
Winston’s exceptional vision on the court has made him one of the best point guards in the country, a rare pass-first guard who can shoot, too. Winston averages 18.2 points and tops the Big Ten in assists with 7.3 per game this season. The junior from Detroit understands his role and how much he can impact a game when he controls the ball’s next move.
“I'm a stressful guy,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said, “but I never worry when it's in his hands.”
Winston’s comfort level with the ball long predates his Michigan State career. His mother, Wendi, said that as a toddler, her oldest son could dribble better than he could walk. When she worked as office administrator at a church, he’d stand still out in the huge lobby just dribbling a kid-sized basketball. Winston’s father, Reg, would scream with excitement about his 2-year-old son’s form when he shot on a Fisher-Price rim. A few years later, during a visit to Six Flags, strangers tossed coins as the young Winston dribbled when a staffer at an idle basketball game let him play with the ball.
Those are the gifts, which his coaches never taught but Winston always had. But then there were the 500 daily shots he’d make after he finished homework and all the time he spent playing as a young kid — organized and pickup, in the suburbs and in the projects, with kids his age and with older guys. Through that time and all the trial and error, Winston figured out the game and how to use pace to his advantage. Izzo compared Winston to Barry Sanders, the former Detroit Lions running back. Both aren’t the fastest but can get by you anyway.
“That’s why some of the stuff he does that looks naturally gifted to some people,” Winston’s father said, “they just really haven’t seen all the time that he spent developing.”
All three Winston brothers — Cassius, Zachary (a freshman at Albion College) and Khy (a senior in high school) — play basketball, and the family has poster-sized calendars on the kitchen wall to keep track of game schedules. Starting with Michigan State’s game against Maryland, a Winston brother plays every day this week.
Since Winston arrived in East Lansing, each year has brought steady improvement. That’s how it’s supposed to be, Izzo said, adding how the trend of one-and-dones sometimes makes it seem like there should be a massive jump rather than the more typical gradual growth.
Winston’s strength has improved, and his coach said he’s eating more like an athlete, cutting back on his favorites — hot Cheetos and Starburst. One of Winston’s best qualities is how he stays even-keeled. One of his worst qualities is that he can be too even-keeled, Izzo said, citing the recent Penn State game, a win for No. 6 Michigan State in which Winston had just 11 points. However, in the game that followed, the Spartans’ win last week at Nebraska, the junior scored a career-high 29 points with six assists.
“He's not a perfect product yet,” Izzo said. “But he's sure looking towards one.”
Winston finished his sophomore season as the Big Ten’s leader in three-point shooting (52.6 percent) and assists (6.8 per game). He’ll receive his degree this spring, but if he stays for his final year of eligibility, he could break Michigan State’s career assists record. Most NBA draft projections do not include the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Winston as a pick this year, but despite lacking the size and athleticism teams typically seek, he could still carve out a professional career.
“He has a sixth sense to see the court,” Izzo said. “Once in a while, I still call him ‘Casual Cash,’ because it’s so easy for him, he gets casual. Then he’ll turn it over once in a while. But, boy, he’s exceeded what I thought he’d be able to do this year.”
When Winston played at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, his coach, Pat Donnelly, told him he had an old man’s game. He saw the action slower than his peers could. He’s patient and never flustered. Izzo said Winston “waddles around,” and when he shoots, he “just kind of flicks it up.” Plus, Izzo said the point guard has never dunked, so yes, he plays an old man’s game. (He’s wrong, Winston said, assuring that he has in fact dunked — but when he was in high school. “It’s on YouTube!” he said.)
When Izzo visited Detroit to watch open gym at Winston’s high school, Winston, a ninth-grader at the time, had to ask who Izzo came to watch. When Winston was asked to remember that day, his tone perked up a bit as he said with a twinge of pride that he did indeed play well.
“I didn't feel any pressure,” Winston said. “Just a little energy.”
Izzo left the school thinking this 14-year-old could become Michigan State’s best passer since Magic Johnson. Then, when Winston arrived on campus four years later, Izzo realized he could shoot, too, and thought, “Jeez, we got a bonus here.”
Like most kids who make it to this level, Winston wanted to always win, but he showed that desire to the extreme by crying during games. His dad remembers when an opponent won the tip and scored first — tears. His mom said once when a game was tied at halftime — tears. Anytime their son reached to the collar of his jersey and brought it toward his face, they knew what was happening. Winston laughs now about the habit, adding that it probably lasted way too long, at least into middle school, he said.
Now, though, he sees it differently, with maturity and poise. Why waste time being upset when you can start figuring out how to fix the issue? You use it to get better. After Michigan State’s early exit in last year’s NCAA tournament, Winston felt disappointed, but he and the team quickly pledged to make a run this season.
“Every problem,” Winston said, “there’s always a solution.”
And for Michigan State basketball, he’s usually part of that answer.