When Kentucky played in New York last season, less was more for PJ Washington. He scored a then career-high 20 points, grabbed six rebounds and tied a career high of four blocks in a victory over Monmouth. He also showed his defensive versatility by playing on the back line and at the front of a 2-3 zone.
UK Coach John Calipari linked this breakout performance to Washington losing 15 pounds in a recent 17-day period. If there were such an award as Weight Watchers Player of the Week, Washington would have won it.
Ever the never-satisfied coach, Calipari added, “And I even said, maybe lose seven, eight more. Huh? Maybe you can even get better.”
Fast forward to this season and Kentucky has put a more-is-more label on Washington. UK does not want more pounds, but more points, rebounds, blocks and presence.
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“I believe PJ is a dominant basketball player who is super talented, that can put this team on his back,” associate coach Kenny Payne said recently. “And for whatever reason, there is an inconsistency there.”
A mid-November three-game spree that saw a career high 18 rebounds against VMI, a career-high 25 points against North Dakota and back-to-back double-doubles should become the norm for Washington, Payne said.
As UK prepared for a return trip to New York for Saturday’s game against Seton Hall, Washington’s father saw the more-is-more expectation as another example of a never-satisfied coach encouraging a player to continually try to improve.
“Do you play the lottery?” Paul Washington said. “I do. I want to win every time I play, right?”
His son wants to win, too, Paul Washington said. Don’t tell Ken Pomeroy, but statistics do not serve as much of a motivator.
“Winning is the top priority ...,” the elder Washington said. “He’s not a numbers type of guy. It’s just not in his DNA.”
A coach himself until retiring after last season, Paul Washington knows about spurring a player to greater heights.
“I try to keep it simple for him when I talk to him,” he said. “‘Let’s just go out and rebound.’ I think when you rebound and have fun, the other parts of the game will come.”
The elder Washington said he gained an appreciation for a one-for-all approach when he played for Middle Tennessee. He tried to instill that attitude in his son.
“There were always guards who came down and shot the ball all the time,” he said of his playing days. “I was just frustrated. ‘When I get it, they want it back.’ I just hated playing with selfish, selfish people who took their self-interest above the team.”
The elder Washington said he understood and supported the UK coaches seeking more from his son. That goes with PJ being a veteran player.
“At Kentucky, a sophomore is almost like a senior,” he said.
And PJ is more comfortable as a sophomore.
“It’s like walking into a new apartment with the lights out,” Paul Washington said. “The sun just went down. With no lights, you don’t know where things are at.
“This year, he knows where the light switch is at. He knows how to get around the furniture. He’s a lot more comfortable in his surroundings.”
PJ Washington’s time as a Kentucky player has been a display of versatility. As a freshman, he became a low-post strongman. This was never more evident than in UK’s loss to Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament.
Going through the NBA Draft process last spring was something of a flashback experience. Pro scouts advised Washington to improve his perimeter skills. He had played point guard at a younger age.
Now, Kentucky is asking for more-more-more. As Payne said, give 110-percent effort rather than a comfortably productive 85.
“He needs to do what Cal and Kenny Payne tell him to do this year to win this year,” Paul Washington said. “It sounds like what they’re saying is they need him at 110 percent to be that leader that they need.”
No. 9 Kentucky vs. Seton Hall
What: Citi Hoops Classic
Where: Madison Square Garden in New York
Records: UK 7-1; Seton Hall 5-3
Series: Tied 1-1
Last meeting: Seton Hall won 63-60 in Great Alaska Shootout semifinals on Nov. 26, 1988
Radio: WLAP 630; WBUL 98.1