Washington looks to be a leader

Published 12:33 pm Monday, July 16, 2018

In the one-and-done era, especially at Kentucky, PJ Washington is now considered one of the old guys.

Even though the 6-7, 236-pounder from Dallas will be a sophomore, he will be expected to provide some guidance and leadership for UK’s 2018-19 squad which is loaded with a super crop of highly-regarded freshmen as well as a couple of key sophomore returnees — Quade Green and Nick Richards.

In addition, the Wildcats will feature 6-8, 245-pound graduate transfer Reid Travis, a two-time first team All-Pac-12 selection from Stanford. And don’t forget 6-4 Jemarl Baker, who redshirted last season after undergoing knee surgery in October.

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Washington, a former McDonald’s All-American who went through the 2018 NBA Draft process before deciding to return to UK, is the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder after averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds last season. He started 30 of 37 games.

Toward the end of last season, Washington showed incredible improvement on the floor as a freshman. In Kentucky’s final 12 games of the campaign, he scored in double figures in 11 of them, including a double-double in Wildcats’ 61-58 setback to Kansas State in NCAA Sweet Sixteen in Atlanta. Against K-State, he pumped in 18 points and snatched a career-high 15 rebounds.

UK coach John Calipari is obviously pleased that Washington is coming back.

“Whatever PJ decided (about his NBA/UK decision) we were going to support, but I’m really happy with the decision he’s come to because I really want to coach PJ for another season,” he said. “I know how good of a player he is and think he showed it at times last season, but I’m looking forward to seeing him grow and build on it. What I love most about this decision is why PJ is doing it. He told me he wants to come back to be a leader, to grow and to drag his teammates with him as we try to do something special.”

As you’ll recall, Washington, though, struggled from the charity stripe in the Kansas State matchup despite his double-double performance. He only hit 8-of-20 free throws for 40 percent.

“We lost. I didn’t play good at all,” he told the assembled reporters at the NCAA tournament. “As you saw, I went 8-for-20 from the line. I feel like if I would have made at least half of those, we would have won the game, so I didn’t play really good.”

In early June, it was revealed that Washington had a surgery to repair his injured pinky finger after playing with his sore finger for parts of last season, but he said he’s recovering and doing better.

On his role for next season, Washington said, “(Coach Cal) told me if I come back, he wants me to do everything I did the in the Kansas State game and just work on my outside game a lot more. That’s basically what he said, and I’ve been doing that in my pre-draft workouts. That’s what I’ve been focusing on, and I feel like I’m ready for it. I can’t wait for the season to start.”

A swingman forward, Washington said he can play at either post or perimeter.

“I’ve been playing basketball for a long time. In high school and stuff like that, I played on the perimeter, so I’m pretty used to it,” he said. “My senior year (in high school) I did a lot of it, which you guys didn’t really get to see. I’m pretty confident in my abilities. Like I said, I’ve been putting work in and I trust my work. That doesn’t really stress me at all.”

Washington said he isn’t worried about his free throw shooting woes after that loss to Kansas State.

“I’m confident in my abilities,” he said. “I practice every day. I get in the gym and work on the things I need to work on. I’ve just got to trust my work.”

Calipari said the game is “kind of going position-less, I want (Nick Richards) to train as though he’s a guard. I want him to have those kinds of skills at the end of the day. Just like Reid (Travis). Just like PJ (Washington) and just like EJ (Montgomery). They all are being trained as though they’re guards, but I want them to finish like they’re bigs.

“I said to PJ and Reid, ‘You two are bulls. You two are so physical. You don’t want to get away from that, but undersized bullies don’t make it in that next level. You’ve got to have great movement. You’ve got to be able to fly up and down the court. You better be able to space the court out. You don’t have to make them all out there. You just can’t miss them all out there.’ Those are the things we’re working on with all of these guys.”

Washington has an advice for the star freshmen coming in, saying they need to be mentally tough.

“I feel like if you’re mentally tough you can get through it,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing with Cal: If you’re mentally tough, you play a lot. You play a lot of defense. Basically, you go out there and do your thing. Just come in and be mentally tough, listen to what he says and just try to apply it to the court.”

Coming off a 26-11 campaign, including a SEC Tournament title, Kentucky will travel to the Bahamas in early August for a four-game, eight-day trip. The games in the Bahamas will be televised by the SEC Network.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.