Mark Story

If Kentucky wins 2020 NCAA title, the first ring should go to PJ Washington

PJ Washington ‘definitely where I want to be’ after second season at Kentucky

Kentucky's PJ Washington could serve as an example of how a second college season can pay off, but he said most players are looking to make it to the NBA as soon as possible.
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Kentucky's PJ Washington could serve as an example of how a second college season can pay off, but he said most players are looking to make it to the NBA as soon as possible.

In his two-season Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball career, PJ Washington never played in a Final Four.

However, if the 2019-20 Wildcats should cut down the nets in Atlanta next spring, there is a case to be made that the first national championship ring should go to Washington.

This week’s announcements by UK big men Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery that they are staying in Lexington for, respectively, their junior and sophomore seasons, continued an unusual dynamic for the current Cats’ off-season.

The two post players joined sophomore-to-be point guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley in extending their UK careers.

For most college basketball programs, that would not be noteworthy. At UK — with its constantly churning roster — having talented, returning players is an unusual and happy occurrence.

Each player brings their own unique perspectives to the decision of when to depart college, of course.

Still, it seems somewhere between possible and probable that Washington’s success in boosting his NBA Draft standing by returning to UK for his sophomore season in 2018-19 removed at least some of the peer pressure past players at Kentucky have seemingly felt to exit at the earliest moment.

pj washington
Former Kentucky forward PJ Washington, right, is projected as the No. 16 available prospect for the 2019 NBA Draft by the Hoopshype.com aggregate of mock drafts. Jeff Roberson AP

After Washington averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds as a UK freshman in 2017-18, the 6-foot-8, 228-pound Dallas product put his name into the NBA Draft to be evaluated.

When the verdict was he would not go in the 2018 draft’s first round, Washington came back to school.

That decision worked out splendidly. In 2018-19, Washington averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds while improving his three-point shooting percentage from 23.8 (5-of-21) as a freshman to 42.3 (33-of-78) as a sophomore.

Now, Washington is perceived to be knocking on the door of the NBA Draft lottery. He is ranked as the No. 16 prospect in the Hoopshype.com 2019 mock draft aggregate.

The value to UK of having a player markedly benefit from staying in school cannot be overstated.

For all the identification of Kentucky with the 26 one-and-done players who have been taken in the NBA Draft during the John Calipari coaching era, it is not losing draft picks after one season that has frustrated UK backers.

Since 2015-16, UK has lost nine players with remaining eligibility who were not NBA Draft choices at all.

Isaiah Briscoe, Isaac Humphries and Wenyen Gabriel all turned pro after two seasons without hope of hearing their names called in the NBA Draft.

Isaac Humphries
Kentucky sophomore Isaac Humphries scored 12 of his 148 UK career points in the Wildcats’ 75-73 loss to North Carolina in the 2017 NCAA Tournament round of eight in Memphis. Jonathan Palmer

Charles Matthews, Marcus Lee, Sacha Killeya-Jones, Tai Wynyard, Quade Green and Jemarl Baker all transferred to other schools. Other than Lee, who left Kentucky after his junior season, the others had multiple seasons of eligibility remaining.

It is losing those non-drafted players that has kept Kentucky from building any kind of “veteran core.” To see why that matters, one need only look at the teams that have been playing in NCAA title games over the past four years.

2019: NCAA champion Virginia started a redshirt junior, two juniors, a redshirt sophomore and a freshman; runner-up Texas Tech started three redshirt seniors and two sophomores.

2018: NCAA champion Villanova started three redshirt juniors, a junior and a redshirt freshman; runner-up Michigan started a senior, a redshirt junior, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman.

2017: NCAA champion North Carolina started two seniors and three juniors; runner-up Gonzaga started a senior, three redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore.

2016: NCAA champion Villanova started two seniors, two juniors and a freshman; runner-up North Carolina started two seniors, a junior and two sophomores.

Kyle Guy
Virginia guard Kyle Guy was one of four starters for the 2019 NCAA champions who had been in school three years or more. Julie Jacobson Associated Press

In 2019-20, the Kentucky roster will feature the usual ballyhooed Calipari recruiting haul. Ranked the second-best class in the country by 24/7, UK will add five freshmen in combo guard Tyrese Maxey plus four well-regarded wing players.

However, Kentucky will also have a junior center, Richards, with 40 career starts. UK will boast a graduate transfer power forward, Nate Sestina, who had 32 career starts at Bucknell.

The Cats will have three sophomores in Hagans (30 career starts), Montgomery (10 career starts) and Quickley (seven career starts) who were starters and/or rotation players last season as Kentucky went 30-7 and reached the NCAA Tournament round of eight.

In the prior two NCAA tourneys, Kentucky’s lack of experience proved its fatal flaw.

Two years ago, a veteran, physically mature Kansas State confounded UK’s all-freshmen starting five while pulling a shocking round-of-16 upset.

Last season, well-seasoned Auburn guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper carved up Kentucky’s all-freshmen backcourt to end the Wildcats’ season one victory short of the Final Four.

While March Madness is a guarantee-free zone, having four veteran, returning players plus a grad transfer should help inoculate Kentucky’s 2019-20 roster from the NCAA Tournament fate of the past two UK teams.

We may come to think of that as “The PJ Washington Effect.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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