PJ Washington, the lone player to return to Kentucky after putting his name in this year’s NBA Draft, said Thursday that he nearly joined Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jarred Vanderbilt, Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel in heading for the exit.
“Obviously, really close,” he said of the NBA-or-UK decision.
At the NBA Combine last month, Washington said the decision would come down to draft projection: if a likely first-round pick he’d turn pro; if not, he’d return to UK.
Was that how the decision played out?
“I’m here,” he said during an interview session in the Craft Center practice gym. “So, I mean, simple as that.”
Before going through the NBA pre-draft process, Washington met with UK Coach John Calipari. Washington described the setting as an “exit interview,” which meant an end-of-season review and status update Calipari conducts with each player.
“He told me if I come back, he wants me to do everything I did in the Kansas State game,” Washington said, “and then just work on my outside game a lot more.”
Of course, Washington’s March went out like a lion and a lamb. He posted a double-double with 18 points (equaling his third-highest scoring total of the season) and a career-high 15 rebounds.
But Washington also made only eight of 20 free throws, which loomed large in Kentucky’s season-ending 61-58 defeat.
When asked to estimate how many free throws he’ll practice shooting before next season, Washington motioned toward the blue cast he wore on his left hand.
“I can’t shoot any right now, so I don’t know,” he said.
The cast, which was part of a surgical repair of a broken pinkie finger, should come off sometime in mid-July, he said. “I should be ready by the Bahamas.” UK plays four exhibition games in Nassau during the week of Aug. 7-12.
Washington dismissed a reporter’s notion that he might be “obsessed” about free-throw shooting. “I’m not worried about it,” he said. “I’m confident in my abilities. . . . I practice every day. I get in the gym every day and focus on the things I need to work on. . . . I just have to trust my work.”
During games at the NBA Combine, Washington faced the basket and shot from the perimeter. This contrasted sharply with the low-post back-to-the-basket power game he provided Kentucky as a freshman last season.
Washington, who played point guard at times in high school, played down the idea that the move to the post represented a radical change.
“I did a lot of what you guys didn’t get to see,” he told reporters gathered in an arc in front of his chair. “I’m pretty confident in my abilities.”
Of the move to the low post for UK, he said, “That really doesn’t stress me at all.”
Interestingly, NBA people at the Combine wanted the “bigs” playing on the perimeter.
“If you look at the NBA game today, there’s not a lot of people in the post,” Washington said.
During an interview session at a camp in Elizabethtown this month, Calipari seemed to encourage the idea of Washington playing more on the perimeter next season. Improve as a three-point shooter (5-for-21 last season). Initiate offense.
“How about ‘I want to lose some weight?’” Calipari said in adopting Washington’s voice.
This continued a theme Calipari first mentioned publicly after Washington’s all-over-the-court performance helped UK beat Monmouth in Madison Square Garden. At various times in the game, Washington played three different positions in a 2-3 zone. He also made, ahem, all nine free throws he shot.
When asked about losing weight, Washington said, “Right now, I’m 225. And at the Combine, they said I was 6 percent body fat. I don’t really think I need to lose that much weight. If anything, I think I need to gain a little weight just to play down low.”