Of all of John Calipari’s NBA hopefuls from a year ago, PJ Washington struggled with his decision the most. He was reportedly back and forth throughout the entire process, but ultimately decided he needed a first-round guarantee to go. Once the guarantee didn’t come, Washington knew it was best to return to school, where he will almost certainly be an All-SEC player going into his sophomore year, and returns the most minutes, points, and rebounds for the Wildcats.
He feels he made the right decision to come back, although at times it seemed, at least to outsiders, the people around him wanted him to go. He shot that notion down, though, saying his family supported him the whole way, no matter the path he would decide to take.
“I feel like my family had my back, whatever decision I made,” he said. “They really let me make my decision, they didn’t make my decision for me. They obviously wanted me to make whatever decision they wanted, but I kind of took whatever they had to say and made my own decision. I feel like I made the best decision for me and them.”
As Washington worked out for NBA teams and weighed the pros and cons of remaining in the draft, several other players were in the process of making their own decisions, which could’ve impacted Washington’s future. Two of his UK teammates, forwards Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, contemplated a return, while Stanford grad Reid Travis, also a power forward, had Kentucky in mind as a graduate transfer destination. Throw in the commitment of five-star power EJ Montgomery, and it seemed there could be too many bodies in the paint at Kentucky.
Washington insists the decisions of others did not matter to him, and he wouldn’t let a crowded frontcourt at Kentucky push him to the NBA if he didn’t have the feedback he needed from the league.
“The decision was so hard for me that I wasn’t focusing on anything but myself,” he said. “I just heard from a lot of people, trying to sum things up, and I just felt like the best decision was coming back.”
In the end, Gabriel and Vanderbilt remained in the draft, and now Washington is battling with Travis and Montgomery in Lexington, as well as returning sophomore Nick Richards, who Washington said is much more dedicated than he was a year ago. The talented group makes for very competitive practices, and you can’t take a day off or you’ll get abused.
“There is a lot of length and a lot of strength,” Washington said. “You just have to come out and be focused everyday in practice because any day you can be abused down there, guarding Reid, or Nick will block all of your shots. You just have to come in focused and ready to play.”
It’s not just the big men who are going at each other everyday. Washington sees it at every position, and believes this year’s team will be a lot better than the team of a year ago.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I feel like they’re all hungry. They all bring something different to the table. I feel like we’re going to be a lot better than we were last year because they work a lot harder. They’re in the gym every night. They just love the game of basketball and I can’t wait to step on the court with them.”
As for Washington’s own improvement from a year ago, he described three new aspects of his game.
“The biggest thing I’ve improved on is being able to guard different positions, switching out on smaller guards and keeping them in front,” he said. “Then being more comfortable in my outside shot and being able to be a leader for this team. Those are the three biggest things I’ve been working on.”
He is shooting more three-pointers in practice (that’s his moneymaker for the next level) and is comfortable in his outside shot so far. And those free throw woes from last year’s season-ending tournament loss? He’s working on those, too. Obviously, he takes the issue very seriously, but can’t help but smile at the haters on social media.
“I think it’s funny,” he said, when asked about all of the free throw comments and hate he gets on his Instagram photos. “They mess with me everyday about it so I’m pretty used to it now. I don’t really let it get to me. I just laugh about it and just keep moving on.”
There will be no laughing when Washington takes the court for his sophomore season in a couple of weeks. Only flexing and snarling as a man on a mission, back to lead the Cats with an expanded game.
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series: