The PJ Washington “mean mug” first exploded in popularity a couple of weeks ago, after the UK freshman drove the lane and threw down a monster slam in the Cats’ conference tournament rout of Alabama.
After the dunk, Washington scrunched his face together, stuck out that bottom lip and stared into the baseline camera. He held the look as he turned around and circled back to the free throw line, much to the delight of his teammates and Kentucky fans.
The mean mug went national a week later.
That’s when Washington hit a shot over Buffalo’s Nick Perkins to give the Cats a double-digit lead for good in their round-of-32 NCAA Tournament victory. Washington got fouled on the play, and the cameras got the face in return.
“And one,” said CBS play-by-play man Brian Anderson.
“And one mean face for PJ Washington,” responded color commentator Chris Webber. “Flexes on you (to) let you know, ‘I’ve been in the weight room for the summer.’ … Big fella driving, using that glass.”
Webber had been talking about the Washington mean mug earlier in the game, and plenty of people were talking about it in the aftermath of the Alabama jam.
There’s plenty of video and photo evidence that Washington’s now-trademark look has actually been there all season long, and the player himself says it’s been around a lot longer than that.
“It’s been happening since I was younger,” Washington said from UK’s South Region locker room Wednesday. “I’ve always been an emotional player. It’s something my parents have always seen when I play. It’s great, just putting a face on and bringing that energy.”
His father, Paul Washington Sr., has the origin story of the face, which is often accompanied by an exaggerated flex of the forearms.
“One of his favorite characters growing up was The Hulk,” PJ’s father said with a chuckle. “So he’s been flexin’ and mean muggin’ since he was a kid. That’s nothing new.”
PJ said he thinks it started around the fifth grade, and his dad, who has coached him for much of his life, said that sounded about right. Paul Washington recalled that as the year that PJ’s team advanced to the fifth-grade AAU nationals, where it lost in the finals to a team led by Michael Porter Jr. and Gary Trent Jr. All three youngsters would go on to be McDonald’s All-Americans.
“It was just fun,” PJ said of his faces back in the day. “I was always having fun playing basketball.”
“That’s just his personality, man,” his father added. “We’ve always encouraged him to have fun.”
His teammates, fans and parents have obviously been having a lot of fun watching him play recently.
Washington’s mean mugs have become more bountiful — and, perhaps, more exaggerated — with the Cats rolling through the postseason and PJ playing the best basketball of his young college career.
He’s scored in double figures in 10 of his last 11 games — after failing to score more than six points in any of the five games that preceded that run — and his individual success and more aggressive play has largely coincided with UK wins.
“I think when Cal sat all the kids down and kind of told them what he wanted them to do and their roles, I think they all kind of settled in and understand what he wanted from them,” Paul Sr. said. “PJ’s been doing good. I like the fact that when he gets double-teamed, he’ll pass out of it. He’s limited his turnovers. He’s running down the court. He’s finishing strong. And he’s one of the better communicators out there. If you look at him, you’ll see him point and telling kids where to go and what to do.
“I think he’s really playing well this past month or so.”
And his teammates have seen that face more and more.
“He’s always making that mug, all the time,” said Quade Green. “That’s his image really. … The past few games, it’s come out more because he’s been aggressive. He’s getting to the rim, nobody can guard him. He’s doing what he’s gotta do.”
Sacha Killeya-Jones smiled at the very mention of the mean mug.
“I think it’s funny,” he said. “He loves doing it, and I think he knows it’s been a little bit of a sensation.”
Washington does seem to have enjoyed the attention that comes with the attitude, though teammate Jarred Vanderbilt said he wasn’t even sure PJ knows he’s making the face when he does it.
Vanderbilt was wrong there. Washington flashed a grin and simply responded, “Yeah,” when asked if he’s aware when he’s making the face.
“I just feel like some plays are bigger than others.”