John Clay

A la Josh Allen, PJ Washington showing he made right choice to return

John Calipari praises PJ Washington’s game in win over North Carolina

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about sophomore forward PJ Washington, who just missed a triple-double in the Wildcats' 80-72 win over North Carolina on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018 in the CBS Sports Classic.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about sophomore forward PJ Washington, who just missed a triple-double in the Wildcats' 80-72 win over North Carolina on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018 in the CBS Sports Classic.

Last spring, Kentucky football’s Josh Allen made an important decision. Instead of leaving school early for the NFL Draft, the outside linebacker opted to return for another season, expand his skills and improve his stock. Needless to say, the decision has paid off.

Can the same thing be happening for Allen’s friend, PJ Washington?

Two months after Allen’s decision, Washington faced a similar choice. The freshman forward could remain in the NBA Draft pool or return to school, expand his game and improve his stock. Like Allen, Washington chose the latter. And with Kentucky traveling to Louisville on Saturday, if Washington’s impact hasn’t quite met the lofty “Player of the Year” heights of a Josh Allen, the sophomore from Texas has certainly upped his game.

In fact, nearly lost in the midst of Ashton Hagans’ eight steals, Keldon Johnson’s 21 points and Reid Travis’ 20 was Washington’s near triple-double in Kentucky’s impressive 80-72 victory over North Carolina in last Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.

Washington finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high eight assists. It was his fourth double-double of the season, passing the three double-doubles he recorded his freshman season. And his performance was of a piece with the improvement Washington has shown throughout the current campaign.

Last season, Washington shot 51.9 percent from the floor. This year, he’s shooting 52 percent. Last year, Washington shot just 23.8 percent from three-point range. This year, he’s shooting 45 percent. Last year, Washington shot 60.6 percent from the foul line. This year, he’s shooting 70 percent. His points per game average has gone from 10.8 last season to 13.3 this year. His rebounds have improved from 5.7 to 8.5. His assists are up from 1.5 to 2.3.

The three-point number particularly sticks out. A season ago, Washington was more of a back-to-the-basket operator, scoring most of his points around the rim. He attempted 21 three-point shots all season, including just one in the final 13 games. NBA scouts had legitimate questions about Washington’s shooting range.

This season, Washington has already taken 20 three-point shots, making nine. He was 4-of-5 from three in the Cats’ early-season romp over North Dakota. Last Saturday, when North Carolina sliced UK’s lead to 66-60 with 6:48 left, Hagans turned a backcourt steal into a Washington three from the top of the key that pushed Kentucky’s cushion to nine points.

“PJ did a little bit of everything, which is what we wanted,” said UK Coach John Calipari afterward. “He scored, rebounded, he had assists, but that’s who he should be.”

Many of the assists were of the “big-to-big” variety. Washington either fed Travis in the post, or drove to draw defenders only to drop the ball off to his open teammate for the easy two.

“I think their big guys looked for each other,” said North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. “It’s a little bit of a buddy system, which is what we try to do, which is one big guy gets the ball and another big guy goes to the front of the rim and makes himself available.”

We already knew Washington can score. He scored a career-high 29 points while grabbing 12 rebounds in UK’s overtime loss to Seton Hall. Afterward, however, Calipari wasn’t satisfied, saying Washington should be a “35 and 20” player every night. That’s a Calipari exaggeration for effect, but you get his point.

It was the same point UK assistant Kenny Payne made at the end of November, implying Washington needed to be more aggressive and consistent.

“Contrary to most people, I believe PJ Washington is a dominant basketball player who is super-talented that can put his team on his back,” Payne said. “I think there’s a ‘He is a solid, good college player, and that’s good enough.’ That’s not good enough. Not for this program. Not for who and what his talent is.”

Like Allen, Washington is showing more and more of that talent.

Saturday

No. 16 Kentucky at Louisville

When: 2 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

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