UK Men's Basketball

‘I challenged myself.’ UK’s Washington says extra year to develop prepared him for NBA.

Is PJ Washington a national player of the year candidate?

After PJ Washington scored 24 points to lead Kentucky to an 80-53 win over his team, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said Washington is a national player of the year candidate. What did the UK sophomore think about that?
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After PJ Washington scored 24 points to lead Kentucky to an 80-53 win over his team, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said Washington is a national player of the year candidate. What did the UK sophomore think about that?

PJ Washington announced Tuesday that he will hire an agent and enter his name in this year’s NBA Draft.

“Thank you, BBN, for all your love and support over the past two years,” Washington tweeted. “Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.”

In a separate tweet, Kentucky Coach John Calipari said he was proud of what Washington had accomplished in his two seasons at UK.

“PJ transformed everything about his game,” Calipari tweeted. “He became a national player of the year candidate. He showed his full set of skills.”

Washington, who was UK’s leading scorer and rebounder, plus go-to guy in the 2018-19 season, became a symbol of how returning to college can be beneficial. He entered the 2018 NBA Draft. He decided to return to UK for a sophomore season.

“When I decided to come back to school a year ago, I knew there were some things I needed to improve on and some things I needed to accomplish,” Washington said in a video accompanying his tweet. “I challenged myself to become a better all-around player, to develop more consistency on both ends of the floor and to become a better leader for this team.”

Washington increased his scoring and rebounding averages: from 10.8 to 15.6 points and from 5.7 to 7.8 rebounds.

Washington made a startling transformation as a three-point shooter, which was reportedly one area of his game NBA people told him he needed to improve.

After making five of 21 three-point shots as a freshman, Washington made 33 of 78 shots from beyond the arc as a sophomore. He nearly doubled his shooting accuracy from three-point range: from 23.8 percent as a freshman to a team-leading 42.3 percent as a sophomore.

The player’s father, Paul Washington, said his son’s decision included a to-do list. “He just kind of checked it all off to make sure,” the elder Washington said. “He felt he accomplished everything except for, obviously, winning the national championship. He got better as a player. The team got better. As the season went on, he was more of a leader.

“He just felt he accomplished his goals. He’s ready for the next step.”

Paul Washington said there was a distinct difference in his son’s decision to enter this year’s NBA Draft as opposed to 2018.

“You really don’t know,” he said of 2018. “You get the feedback. That was the purpose of doing that. This year, it’s like you go into it with a plan.”

In announcing his intention to enter this year’s NBA Draft, Washington thanked the UK coaches for pushing him to excel. “They believed in my potential and never accepted anything less than my best,” he said. “Thank you for helping me grow into a man that’s ready for the next step.”

Calipari set an ultra-high standard for Washington. More than once, the UK coach said Washington was capable of regularly scoring 35 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in a game.

Whenever reminded of this stratospheric standard, Washington always smiled a knowing smile.

In late January and early February, Washington became the first UK player since Julius Randle in 2014 to post double-doubles in three straight games: 20 points and 13 rebounds against Kansas, 26 points and 12 rebounds at Vanderbilt and 15 points and 12 rebounds at Florida.

For the season, Washington had eight double doubles.

In addition to being named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team, Washington was named a second-team All-American by USA Today and to various third-teams (The Sporting News, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, National Association of Basketball Coaches, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and The Associated Press).

Washington punctuated the season and his two-year Kentucky career in memorable fashion. After spraining his left foot in UK’s loss to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal, he sat out UK’s first two NCAA Tournament games.. His foot in a protective boot, then a hard cast and elevated as he used a scooter for mobility sent waves of concern through Big Blue Nation.

Then Washington made a dramatic return in Kentucky’s 62-58 victory over Houston in the Midwest Region semifinals. Calipari had said he expected Washington to play about 15 to 18 minutes. Coming off the bench, Washington scored 16 points, grabbed two rebounds and made a key block late in the game that blunted a Houston rally.

Afterward, associate coach Kenny Payne pointed out that Washington had not practiced nor even participated in the shoot-around earlier in the day.

“He was in pain,” Payne said. “He’s a winning basketball player who makes big plays. And this team desperately needs him.”

When asked how UK would have fared if Washington had not played, Payne said, “I don’t want to even think about playing this game without PJ Washington.”

Less than 48 hours later, Washington again came off the bench in the Midwest Region finals loss to Auburn. He played 11 seconds shy of 37 minutes and led Kentucky with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

Washington is projected as a first-round draft pick by (No. 24), The Sporting News (No. 16) and NBC Sports (No. 12), among others.

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