Kentucky coach John Calipari’s program has seen great players -- John Wall, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, etc. etc. -- come and go during his 10 years in Lexington, most logging the mandatory one season before moving on to the NBA.
A notable exception to that stream of one-and-done departures was P.J. Washington, who arrived as a freshman in 2017-18, stayed for his sophomore season and blossomed into a star some thought capable of hijacking Tennessee forward Grant Williams’ bid to become a two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year. Washington didn’t quite get that done, but he did boost his NBA Draft stock while also etching his name in Kentucky lore with what can only be described as a gut check return from a sprained foot suffered against the Vols in the semifinals of the SEC tournament.
The 6-foot-8 Washington missed Kentucky’s first two games in the NCAA tournament, and though the Wildcats didn’t need him in a first-round victory over Abilene Christian, it was scary facing pesky Wofford -- an excellent mid-major team with the perfect blend of size and shooting -- without him. But Kentucky got past the Terriers, advancing to the Sweet 16 against Houston.
Would Washington, who made the aggressive decision to have his foot encased in a cast instead of a walking boot to speed the healing process, be able to go? The Cougars, a formidable No. 3 seed that didn’t lose a non-conference game and finished 31-2 through the regular season and American Athletic Conference tournament, were playing in their first Sweet 16 since 1984 and eager for a crack at mighty Kentucky.
Speculation about Washington’s availability ran rampant, but Wildcat fans were encouraged after he posted a meme on Twitter that clearly showed he had shed the cast. Calipari added to the intrigue with a tweet of his own that included the meme and the words “Uh oh.”
He can hurt you in any way possible."
Still, Washington wouldn’t bite during a pregame press conference when he was asked multiple times whether he’d play. “I don’t know yet,” Washington said. “I walked over here. That’s good. I’m thinking of giving it a go. It’s just up in the air.”
As it turned out, Washington did more than give it a go. He played 26 minutes, scored 16 points and was clutch in the final five minutes as Kentucky got past the Cougars 62-58 and advanced to the Elite Eight.
“We don’t win the game today without him,” Calipari said.
How did Washington do it?
“I took some pain pills before the game,” he said. “Kind of started hurting in the second half, but I had to tough through it.”
Though Kentucky lost to Auburn -- a team it had beaten twice in the regular season -- in the Elite Eight, that didn’t put a damper on Washington’s comeback, or the season he put together.
Washington struggled late in the non-conference season and early in SEC play, failing to reach double-figure scoring against North Carolina (five points in 33 minutes), Texas A&M (nine in 28) and Vanderbilt (three in 32), but once he emerged, he was hard to handle.
Starting with a 21-point effort against Mississippi State’s rugged front line on Jan. 22 and ending with 23 against Tennessee on Feb. 16, Washington averaged 21 points in an eight-game stretch. Kentucky lost just once during that run and only twice through the January and February.
Washington was a big reason. SEC pundits began to take notice of his all-around game and some began to opine he could overtake presumptive league player of the year favorite Williams. Williams went on a tear of his own in the regular season’s final few games and wound up with that POY trophy, but Washington’s efforts -- he averaged a team-high 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds -- weren’t lost on NBA scouts.
Washington has a complete package. He uses his 7-foot-3 wingspan to full advantage, blocking shots or launching a deadly jump hook. After shooting 23.8 from 3-point range as a freshman and taking just 21 shots from behind the arc, he became a legitimate threat (41.9, 31-for-47). He’s has the patience to see plays develop and affect them with his passing ability. Washington, again taking advantage of his length, can also defend multiple positions.
After Washington racked up 20 points and 13 rebounds against Kansas in a late-January game in the Big 12-SEC Challenge, Calipari raved about the sophomore’s energy. Cal’s job isn’t necessarily easier because he recruits so many five-star freshmen. Great players have to exert effort, too, and sometimes it can be difficult to convince them that a higher level of competition demands a higher level of engagement.
“I think when he plays at a different pace, a different level of intensity, a different level of bouncing and alertness, he's as good as anybody in the country,” Calipari said. “When he doesn't, he's okay. So that becomes, what do you want? And then when you play that way, the hard thing is, to live up to that and have to do that all the time. That's when you become special, where you thrive in that environment.”
After making a wise decision to stay in school after his freshman season, Washington bought into Cal’s logic and thrived in the environment. The results were evident on the floor, and should be on NBA Draft day, too. He’s a consensus first-round pick and some mock drafts have listed him in the lottery.
I think when he plays at a different pace, a different level of intensity, a different level of bouncing and alertness, he's as good as anybody in the country.
SEC coaches who watched miles of tape trying to figure out how to handle Washington were particularly impressed with his progress.
"He is versatile, he can face up, he can bounce it, he can create off the dribble, he's a good passer, and he can score with his back to the basket,” Mississippi State’s Ben Howland said. “He can hurt you in any way possible."
“I thought Washington really, all year he has turned into one of these big shot guys, timely guys, and they play through him and they've got good connectivity offensively,” Florida’s Mike White said.
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