There's many reasons to be excited for the 2015-2016 season of the Miami Heat, which, health-permitting, many anticipate to be a far cry better than the nightmare year they had last season.
Miami's starting unit of Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Chris Bosh, Hassan Whiteside, and Luol Deng is expected to compete against any other starting five in the league, given all the talent and experience that comes when you combine the skill sets of all five guys.
With that unit leading the team, there's a sense of optimism that, not only will the Heat improve on their 37-45 record from last season, but they will also be one of the teams to watch out for in the Eastern Conference.
But what may determine how successful the Heat will ultimately be, including whether or not they belong in the same conversation with other title contenders, is how much contribution they can get off their bench.
Unlike last season when Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra had to make do with NBA D-leaguers, players out of the country, and random pick-ups, the Filipino-American coach now has at his disposal the likes of veteran newcomers Gerald Green and Amare Stoudemire, plus the returning Josh McRoberts, Chris Andersen, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, James Ennis, and Tyler Johnson.
Two more names to add to that bench depth are rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson.
For those who forgot, Winslow, who was expected to go top-five in the 2015 NBA Draft, dropped to number ten to the Heat in what some are calling the biggest steal of draft day. Richardson, who was actually on the Heat's top-30 board, fell to number 40 in the second round, where Spoelstra and Pat Riley gladly picked him up.
The question is, how much can Miami get from the duo? Will it take time for them to get used to the NBA style of play? Will they quickly transition from college to the pros? What roles will they play down the stretch of the season?
So far, at the least, reviews have been good.
"He's good," Bosh said about Winslow, the Duke product, to CBS Miami. "I mean he's big, he's physical, I don't really think he's really 19. I gotta see his birth certificate on that one. He's big and physical, strong and fast. He's just that classic Miami Heat player that Pat Riley loves — long arms, his athleticism, he's developing his jump shot."
If you remember the press conference Riley and Spo had with Winslow after he was drafted, the two gushed about the maturity and high basketball intelligence of the Houston native, which was most prominent throughout the NCAA tournament where he, along with Jahlil Okafor, helped lead Duke to the national title.
"But the thing I like about him most is he's got a great basketball I.Q. to be so young. He's in the right spots. You don't have to tell him much," Bosh said.
Let's get to Winslow first. He stands at 6-foot-6 and weights 220 pounds. He'll likely play the shooting guard and small forward positions in the league, backing up Wade and Deng. In his lone season with the Blue Devils, he averaged 12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.3 steals a game on 49% shooting from the field, including 42% from deep.
Impressive? Definitely, but what Winslow will contribute best - or at least right away - will be the intangibles you don't notice on box scores.
First of all, is defense, an area where Wade, a future NBA Hall-of-Famer, said he was a "Ron Artest-kind-of-player."
If you look early into Artest's career, he was on pace to becoming a very good NBA player. On defense, he was a menace, and it was an area of expertise that stayed with him for most of his career.
Winslow certainly has the physique for it. His defined upper body will allow him to use his strength to disrupt the rhythms of opposing two-guards and small forwards, and maybe even to deal with power forwards in small ball lineups.
He's not the quickest cat on the court, but he's agile enough to move well laterally that the opposition won't easily get to blow by him. You might even see him guarding some point guards during certain stretches in the season. I like to think of him as deceptively athletic - someone who doesn't look to fast break at first, but once he pushes that gas pedal for some extra acceleration, he can fly.
Those defensive traits will be crucial, considering the competition Miami has to go through to get to the NBA Finals. Chicago has Jimmy Butler. Toronto has DeMar DeRozan. Milwaukee has Khris Middleton. Cleveland, obviously, has LeBron James, and the Heat is no stranger to his capabilities.
Miami already has a legitimate lockdown defender in the perimeter in Deng, but knowing that Winslow's there to back him up and apply the same suffocating pressure for opponents will not only make the Heat a better defensive team overall, but also keep Deng's legs fresh for the postseason.
Just ask Mario Hezonja, the 6-foot-8, superb athlete of Orlando, who tried to size up Winslow for a drive in the Magic and Heat's first preseason game, only to get shut down.
On offense is where Winslow will need time to get better. He might have shot well from the college three-point line, but that extends three more feet in the NBA, and it's clear both his form and balance while shooting need improving. In today's NBA where shooting is very important, Winslow can't bail defenders out by letting them sag off him.
He's already very good in transition, which is good news considering he, Dragic, and Green on the break will be very tough to deal with and make the NBA's top-ten highlights every once in a while. He needs work on his ball-handling, but when he gets to the paint, he already has enough strength that lets him either finish at the rim or fish for fouls. He also has a pretty smooth eurostep.
To make it simple, he's still got a lot of work to do - especially on his range, which I can't emphasize enough - but the potential to be great is certainly present.
What Heat fans are going to love most about Winslow though, is his competitiveness. The guy isn't scared of the big moments. He's a hard-worker, and he goes at opponents. He perfectly fits the Heat culture.
"He belongs," Wade said about the kid, who went 2-of-9 but had no turnovers in Miami's preseason debut versus Charlotte and has been steadily increasing his production since.
"He'll continue to get comfortable with what his role is gonna be. He can play in this league. He has the body for it, he has the talent and he has a team around him so that he doesn't have to do too much. This is the perfect situation for him."
"I don't really care," Winslow was quoted as saying when he was told about the comparison to Artest, who won the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. "My name is Justise Winslow. [Wade] can compare me, coach can compare me, the media can compare me, but other than that I'm Justise Winslow."
While you can prepare yourself to watch Winslow for maybe at least 15 minutes a night, it's not so clear with Richardson.
The second unit is likely set with Chalmers, Green, Winslow, Stoudemire, and McRoberts coming in for the starters, but given Wade and Deng's history of injuries, there will be games where those guys will have to start games. That will leave an opening for the bench unit.
Enter Richardson, who's 22-years-old, and already has the tools to be great defensively.
"I think I'm prepared to go out there and try to contain some of the best players in the world, just coming in, being defensive-minded. Justise is the same way," he told the Sun-Sentinel.
He's 6-foot-6 and can play any of the guard positions. That long wingspan of his will surely pester opposing point guards as well as allow him to get a few steals.
Unlike the bruising and defined Winslow, Richardson is more lean and quick, but he could turn out to be just as good on defense.
"They enjoy playing defense. That's half the battle," guard Dwyane Wade said. "They're both two different defenders. Justise is stronger; he's hard to move. And Josh is quick; he's athletic, long," Wade explained.
It's no secret that the NBA is a league where the point guard position is at its best. Dragic, despite how great he is scoring and playmaking, has deficiencies guarding PGs. By inserting Richardson in spot minutes, the Slovenian will be able to rest a little more.
On offense, Richardson has shown during the preseason he can get in the paint numerous times despite playing limited minutes. I believe it's because of his length and quickness, though he needs a lot of work finishing his layups and going at the chest of his defender.
Overall, both Winslow and Richardson provide great promise. They've got some learning to do like most rookies, but with a veteran-oriented group guiding them and teaching the steps to being professionals, they could develop sooner than later. Needless to say, being in Miami Heat uniforms put the two in a great position to succeed.
"These two guys, they love to play hard," Deng told the Sun-Sentinel. "They're playing really hard in training camp. And they want to play defense. And I think it's the right organization to want to do that."