The first night of John Calipari’s USA Basketball U19 training camp wasn’t the best indicator of PJ Washington’s game.
Washington — one of UK’s many five-star freshmen for the 2017-18 season — was one of the best power forwards in the class of 2017, and that’s the position he tried to play Sunday night.
During the opening scrimmages, Washington would run down the floor and establish position on or near the block. He’d raise his hands and call for the ball. It rarely came his way.
“I talked to him a little bit,” Calipari said the next day.
The crux of that conversation: You’re not a power forward anymore.
Calipari told Washington to take the ball and attack the basket. The UK coach wants his new player — who measures 6-foot-8 with a 7-3 wingspan — to play on the perimeter. By Monday night’s evening session, that’s what Washington was doing. And he was practically unstoppable.
“I’m way more comfortable now,” Washington said. “I’m just trying to be aggressive every time I get it. Be aggressive and make a play, make something positive happen on the offensive end.”
Calipari’s next group of Wildcats will be his youngest yet. Eight of his 11 scholarship players next season will be freshmen. The other three will be sophomores.
This roster doesn’t appear to have a transcendent player like No. 1 draft picks John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, and expectations — though still sky high — won’t bring about any preseason 40-0 talk like other recent UK teams.
What this squad will feature — more so than any other Kentucky team under Calipari — is a cast of prospects that perfectly fits the UK coach’s recent obsession with “positionless” basketball players.
That was apparent from the get-go at Calipari’s Team USA training camp.
Washington was attacking the basket and making great passes.
Kevin Knox — a 6-9 freshman who Calipari continually refers to as a guard — played almost entirely on the perimeter, taking defenders off the dribble and hitting long-range shots.
Hamidou Diallo — a 6-5 shooting guard — ran the point on numerous occasions, taking over primary ball handling duties and dishing out no-look assists in traffic.
It was a continuation of the early practices and open gyms these young UK players have already experienced in Lexington, and it was a sneak peek of what they expect things to look like next season in Rupp Arena.
“We’re very versatile, 1-5. We can guard everybody,” Washington said. “We can shoot, we can dribble, we can pass. We’re just a hard team to guard right now, and I feel like a lot of teams are going to have trouble with us.”
All three players spoke excitedly about what’s been going on in Lexington since most of the team arrived this month for summer classes.
Their biggest takeaway from these initial sessions: the Wildcats will have lots of weapons, and Calipari will be able to use them in lots of different ways.
Diallo, Knox and Washington will all be capable of playing multiple positions.
There’s also Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a nearly 6-6 freshman who could play anywhere in the backcourt. There’s 6-9 freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, who is listed as a small forward but can handle the ball in transition or half-court sets and is one of the best passers in the class. Sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, listed at 6-9 and 6-10, respectively, could also be used in multiple roles.
“We’re all long, and we’re going to take that as our advantage this year,” Knox said. “A lot of people are going to have real trouble guarding us. It’s a mismatch problem.
“Running up and down — that’s how Cal likes to play. And that’s just going to make it better for us, because pretty much anybody (on the team) can get a rebound and push it. We just have to get playing together and be unselfish.”
The Cats still haven’t gone at full strength. Freshman point guard Quade Green arrived on campus right after Diallo, Knox and Washington headed to Colorado for USA camp. Vanderbilt is still hobbled from an injury suffered at the Jordan Brand Classic in April, but Calipari expects him to be good to go when his U19 team returns from the FIBA World Cup in Egypt in mid-July.
Diallo and Washington will be with the UK coach on that trip. Knox tweaked a hamstring this week and did not make the USA team.
All three Wildcats roomed together in Colorado. They were often the last three in the practice gym, and they arrived and departed every session alongside one another.
“We just have a bond already,” Diallo said. “Being with them here, we’re just building chemistry now on the floor. Know what each other is better at, what we do. And just trying to put that all in one basket and chase that goal.”
That goal: Another national title for Kentucky.
“We love to play with each other. I think that our bond will get stronger and stronger as the season goes on,” Knox said. “I’m just really looking forward to the season. I know we’re all going to dominate, and hopefully we can win a championship.”