Draft preview: Kentucky’s Washington viewed as a safe pick in a draft full of boom-or-bust options

Kentucky’s P.J. Washington figures to be among the rookies most ready to contribute in the NBA next season and could be a fit for the Pistons with the 15th pick.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS –Toronto is challenging Golden State’s reign in this year’s NBA Finals for one overriding reason: the 15th pick. If it hadn’t been the Raptors, it would have been Milwaukee and for the same reason: the 15th pick. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo were both 15th picks two years apart, Leonard in 2011 and Antetokounmpo in ’13. Two-time MVP Steve Nash was the 15th pick in 1996.

Nobody else comes close to their class, though, among the 65 players drafted 15th overall since the NBA began seeding rosters via an amateur draft. Perhaps Al Jefferson
is the next most accomplished player, though he never made an All-Star team.

The Pistons have had the No. 15 pick four times in their history. Rodney Stuckey (2007) made the most immediate impact and probably wound up having the best career, though Phil Hubbard (1979), a great college player at Michigan before a catastrophic knee injury after his sophomore season, has a case.

The others taken with the 15th pick by the Pistons are Al Eberhard, back in 1974, and Austin Daye in 2009.

Last year’s 15th pick was Troy Brown, who played sparingly for the Washington Wizards. Brown profiles as the type of player most likely to be the pick of the Pistons this year: a teen with one year of college experience and little expectation of offering significant immediate help.

The four No. 15 picks prior to Brown were Justin Jackson, traded from Sacramento to Dallas in February, who shows promise as a rotation player heading into his third season after a three-year career at North Carolina; Juan Hernangomez, who’s shown flashes of promise but has yet to establish himself as part of Denver’s rotation in three NBA seasons; Kelly Oubre, who’ll be a restricted free agent after being traded from Washington to Phoenix at the trade deadline; and Adreian Payne, out of the NBA after being drafted by Minnesota out of Michigan State.

Our draft preview series continues today with a profile of Kentucky sophomore forward P.J. Washington.

FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: P.J. Washington

ID CARD: 6-foot-8 forward, Kentucky, 20 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 16th by ESPN.com, 17th by The Athletic, 16th by SI.com

SCOUTS LOVE: In a draft bloated with boom-or-bust prospects, Washington might have the lowest variance between floor and ceiling of just about anyone who’ll go after the top three picks. Washington, a five-star recruit from Dallas who played his high school basketball at a Las Vegas prep school, had a solid freshman season at Kentucky and flirted with the NBA draft in 2018 before deciding to return for his sophomore season. Washington made strides across the board, going from 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds a game to 15.2 and 7.5 as a sophomore while extending his shooting range. Washington took 78 3-point shots as a sophomore after attempting only 21 as a freshman and his accuracy spiked from 24 percent to 42 percent. Washington brings toughness and physicality to the table at a sturdy 230 pounds. He’s got good feet and plus length, giving Washington a solid shot at being the type of defender who fits the modern NBA – someone who can switch onto guards, recover to the paint and protect the rim. Kentucky used him as the hub of the offense at times, operating out of the elbows, where Washington’s size and shooting touch made him an effective facilitator.

SCOUTS WONDER: Washington declined to undergo any athletic testing at the NBA draft combine last month, leaving unanswered some of the questions about his athleticism. While the transformation he made between year one and two at Kentucky portends well for Washington’s ability to continue thriving as he takes his game farther from the basket, he’d more certainly warrant lottery status if there was faith that Washington also projected as an effective interior scorer. He might have trouble scoring around the rim as there was little evidence of explosion in traffic from Washington. As a passer, while Washington showed flashes of being able to slide into a high-post facilitator role, he finished with more turnovers (69) than assists as a sophomore (63). Like a lot of young players, Washington’s defense away from the ball is a long way from being NBA ready.

NUMBER TO NOTE: 7-foot-2¼ – That’s Washington’s wingspan, giving him the length of many centers and lending confidence to evaluators that he’ll be an easy fit defensively while he finds his niche on offense.

MONEY QUOTE: “I’m just a basketball player. I feel like whatever the coach wants me to do, I can go out there and do it. I’m really confident in my abilities. I feel I showed that this whole year. I did a lot of things on the defensive end, as well, so I feel like I can come in and just play right away. I feel I can guard a lot of positions and I can shoot the ball really well. Obviously, I can rebound. I can pretty much do a lot of things on the court. My motor, that’s pretty much why I was able to do those things.” – P.J. Washington speaking of his transition to the NBA at the draft combine

PISTONS FIT: With Jon Leuer entering the final year of his contract and Thon Maker going into the last year of his rookie contract before the Pistons will have to decide to extend him or let him become a restricted free agent, getting a player who can play backup minutes for Blake Griffin – a player the Pistons might consider resting a little more next season after the scare of his late-season knee injury – would be a practical use of the 15th pick. And Washington seems more ready than most 2019 draft prospects to contribute early in his career.

BOTTOM LINE: The Pistons could go a lot of different ways with the 15th pick. If they see a point guard in Virginia Tech’s Nickiel Alexander-Walker, he’d make sense. If they see one from among a group of wings who figure to go anywhere from 11 to the 20s – players like Keldon Johnson, Nassir Little, Romeo Langford, Tyler Herro and Kevin Porter Jr. – with star potential, that would be a tempting route. The safest pick might be Washington. He’s physically ready to step in and contribute, his shooting range and size suggest he’ll carve out a role even if some of the areas that need advancement don’t come around quickly, and the way he emerged to prominence among Kentucky’s ever-present array of five-star recruits speaks to his competitiveness and talent level. For those same reasons, Washington is no better than 50-50 to get to the Pistons – Charlotte, Miami and Boston, the three teams picking ahead of the Pistons, all would seem potential landing spots – but if he’s available, he figures to draw strong consideration.

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