PJ Washington shares his impressions of the 2018-19 Kentucky basketball team
If he was a guaranteed first-round pick, he’d keep his name in the draft.
If he wasn’t, he’d return to Kentucky for his sophomore season.
Washington is back in Lexington with big expectations and something to prove to NBA scouts.
There’s no denying the 6-foot-8 forward’s talent. He proved that toward the end of last season, when he was clearly one of the Cats’ most effective players down the stretch while largely playing a bully-ball style in the paint against overmatched opponents.
The question this season will be how to balance what he’s shown he’s best at with what he needs to show to pro scouts while also putting the Wildcats in the best position to win.
The NBA Draft process was an educational exercise for what Washington hopes is a growing game. This season, he’ll need to show his work.
“I learned a lot,” Washington said of the process. “I definitely need to work on my outside shooting and just being more consistent with that. Just keep staying focused on my body, and basically just bringing energy on both ends of the floor. Every possession of every game, just playing hard.”
Those areas of focus come straight from the NBA personnel that provided Washington with feedback over the summer, and his preseason trip to the Bahamas proved he’s taking the right steps to meet those goals.
ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony, who has been watching Washington since the player’s early high school days, noticed the improvement.
“Washington looks to be in much better shape and was competing with higher intensity than we saw from him for most of last season,” Givony wrote after the Bahamas trip. “He had some very impressive moments rotating for blocks inside and outside the arc with excellent timing. If he can indeed continue to protect the rim, switch out onto guards on pick-and-rolls and hold his own on the defensive glass, he’ll make a strong case for himself as a versatile, small-ball big man.”
Givony also noted that Washington was 3-for-7 on three-point attempts, including a corner three. As a freshman in college, he made just five of 21 threes (23.8 percent). As a senior in high school — playing for his father at Findlay Prep (Nev.) — Washington showed an improving stroke and greater ability to hit outside shots while playing more of a point forward role.
That role obviously changed when he got to UK, especially as he was pushed more toward the block late in the season. He attempted only one three-pointer over the Cats’ final 13 games.
“At that point last year, I just tried to do whatever the team needed me to do to win,” he said. “So if that was playing the ‘5’ I was happy with that, just trying to go down there and do the best I can.”
This is a new season, and Washington has already had discussions with John Calipari about how to expand his role to show off a more versatile game to those watching in the NBA.
This time around, he has at least a couple of things working in his favor.
First, his outside shot is better. More importantly, Calipari trusts him to use it.
“I’ve been working on it every day in practice,” Washington said. “And I’ve been shooting a lot more threes this year in practice. I’m comfortable with it, and I feel like Coach Cal is comfortable, too. He just said you have to have confidence in yourself, and you have to come in here and work on it. He said if you work on it in practice and it looks good, you’re going to be able to shoot ‘em in the game with confidence.”
Two, his supporting cast should better complement what he’s trying to accomplish.
In the frontcourt, the returning Nick Richards is, by all accounts, much improved. Freshman EJ Montgomery brings high expectations as a versatile forward. And graduate transfer Reid Travis should provide the perfect tough-guy-with-something-to-prove partner to shoulder the load.
And the backcourt should be filled with better shooters than last season.
That means more room for Washington to stretch his game.
“I feel like I have a lot more space this year, just because we have more shooters that will be able to space the court a lot better than what we did last year,” he said. “And I like to play mismatches. If I have somebody that I feel like can’t guard me, I’m definitely going to go down low and just try to bully them. But I’m just going to try to play my game within the flow of the offense.”
About this series
This is the third in a series of 13 stories featuring members of the 2018-19 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Watch for all 13 in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.