[Ed. note: This is the latest installment in an ongoing series about Kentucky’s 2017 class. Be sure to check out our other features on Jarred Vanderbilt and Nick Richards, and stay tuned for Quade Green and Shai Alexander.]
Halfway through my conversation with PJ Washington, I look up and notice we have an audience. A crowd of 20 or 30 Kentucky fans has quietly filled in around us in the lobby of the Marshall County High School gym, waiting to get PJ’s autograph or picture. Knowing my place, I step aside and let the fans meet the future Cat, who politely and patiently grants each request. While the concept of signing autographs is still new to the five-star power forward, this group is nothing compared to the one who surrounded him the night before; after nearly getting a triple double in his first game at the Kentucky Lake Showcase, PJ spent almost an hour signing autographs and taking pictures with fans.
“Oh my goodness, it was at least 50-70 people last night,” PJ says, smiling. “This is my first time playing in Kentucky in a while and a lot of the Big Blue Nation was here. It was just great.”
For PJ, the weekend in Marshall County was a preview of what’s to come when he suits up for Kentucky next fall, the culmination of a childhood dream.
PJ Washington remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted to play for Kentucky: when he saw John Wall do the John Wall dance at Big Blue Madness in 2009.
“Ever since John Wall went to Kentucky, I just fell in love with the program,” PJ says. “I remember the John Wall dance and everything.”
We’ve said it for years, but that dance was also the exact moment that Kentucky became a cool program again. Even though they were in Dallas, Texas, PJ said his entire youth basketball team loved the Cats because of Wall.
“I was in Dallas and I was playing on my dad’s team and that’s when Kentucky had the tight jerseys and the long shorts and everybody wanted to do that, so my team did it as well. We just wanted to be like them,” PJ says. “At that point, everybody was Kentucky fans and everybody just fell in love with John Wall’s game and the way he played at Kentucky, it was just a big dream for me to come there.”
PJ loved the Cats so much that when his dad, Paul Washington, took him to visit UCLA in 2011, he wore a Kentucky shirt. His dad snapped a picture of PJ with the Bruin Bear sculpture on campus and years later, showed it to Steve Alford when Alford started recruiting his son.
“He was fine,” Washington Sr. says of Alford’s reaction. “He just smiled and said, ‘Send it to Cal, he’ll post it on his Instagram.'”
Fast forward a few years to when PJ picked up the coveted offer from Kentucky. Early on, he turned heads as a strong scorer and rebounder around the rim, but as time went on, his game expanded and his calling card became his versatility. Last weekend in Marshall County, he nearly had a triple double on Friday night, putting up 23 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists, and five blocks. On Saturday, his numbers weren’t as flashy — 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists — but Findlay Prep was up by so much that he spend a good portion of the game on the bench. Even though he’s listed as a power forward, PJ occasionally brought the ball up the court and spent most of the game trying to create opportunities for his teammates rather than looking to score himself. At 6’8″ 235 lbs., PJ was comfortable operating from any spot on the floor, looking every bit the “positionless” player that John Calipari covets.
“I try to do everything on the court, passing, rebounding, scoring, and really, just trying to get my team involved,” PJ says afterwards. “I just play with everything I have, play with my heart every game and just try to win.”
After growing up as a Kentucky fan, you might think Washington would have committed to Calipari on the spot when he got the offer, but his parents made him promise to go through the process. He did, taking official visits to Kentucky, North Carolina, and UNLV, but to anyone who was paying attention, it was obvious Kentucky was the favorite. PJ was actually born in Louisville, and although his family moved to St. Louis shortly thereafter, his mother Sherry likes to joke that her son has the Bluegrass in his blood.
“He was born in Kentucky so he always had it in him,” Sherry says. “He always wanted to play for Kentucky.”
The Washingtons eventually settled in Texas until PJ’s sophomore year, when his dad got the job as the head coach at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, DeAndre Liggins’ alma mater. Despite all the moves, Washington Sr. confirms his son “has been a Kentucky guy from day one.”
PJ took his official visit to Kentucky in September, but his dad knew his son would want to come back for Big Blue Madness in October, so he started saving up for an unofficial visit (on the family’s dime) last summer. After seeing the spectacle that is Madness up close, PJ couldn’t wait much longer. He committed to Kentucky on November 10.
“Just seeing the fans and the crowd, it was way different than everyone else,” PJ says of his reaction to Madness. “The brotherhood was amazing. Everyone came back for Big Blue Madness and we’re just a family and we want to be a part of it.”
Ten days after committing, PJ signed with Kentucky, making the decision final. In his remarks about Kentucky’s early 2017 signees, John Calipari set the bar high for his future forward.
“P.J. Washington is an alpha dog,” Cal said. “I’m not trying to hype him up because I don’t do that, but he’s a combination between Trey Lyles and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He’s not quite as big as Trey and shoots it a little bit better than Michael, but he’s that kind of player. He’s a physically strong player. I want him to come in here and lead and be an attack dog. In the same sense as Nick, he’s not close to where he’s going to be. He can shoot it, you can throw it ahead to him in the break and he can bully a player that’s not big enough to guard him. He’s an outstanding player.”
How powerful is PJ? I got an up-close view on Saturday:
PJ Washington slam! pic.twitter.com/55mWRbOe3R
– Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) February 19, 2017
Basically, PJ Washington is a player we could really use this year.
After it became official, PJ pretty much turned into a walking advertisement for Kentucky Basketball, sporting a UK shirt in warmups of his games and, according to his mother, practically living in UK knit caps. Although Quade Green seems to have taken the lead role on recruiting Mohamed Bamba and Kevin Knox to Kentucky, PJ says he never misses an opportunity to put in a good word about the BBN.
“I talk to them all the time,” PJ says of Bamba and Knox. “I get at them on Instagram, Twitter, everything. Every time they post something, I’ll get on their photos talking about BBN. I mean, it’s just all love, and I feel like we’re in a good place with them.”
How does he sell Kentucky to Bamba and Knox?
“It’s the best place for you to get ready for the next level. It’s the best place for you to get ready to play with great players on the same team and it’s the best place for you. There’s no doubt about it. It’s the best college in America.”
Washington won gold with the 18U National Team last summer, and hadn’t planned on playing with the 19U squad this year until he heard that Calipari would be the coach. That changed everything.
“I really wasn’t planning on doing it this year until they said he was going to do it, so I feel like it’s a great thing for me to do since I’ll be able to be coached by him before the season,” PJ says. “It’s going to give me a good head start because some of the guys that are going to be on our team are going to Kentucky as well, like Quade Green, Hamidou [Diallo], maybe Mo Bamba. It’s just going to be a lot of fun playing with those guys and playing for Coach Cal.”
For now, PJ keeps in touch with his future teammates via a group text, which he says blows up during UK games, specifically, “every time we see Hamidou on TV.” Speaking of Diallo, you can tell PJ’s a little envious that his former 18U squad teammate is already in Lexington.
“He’s lucky, I wish I there right now. I’m glad he’s there, I’m glad he came. I’m excited to play with him next year.”
Back to the lobby at Marshall County, where PJ is still signing autographs and taking selfies. The crowd keeps building, and when I ask his mom about it, she just smiles.
“It’s a proud moment to see him accomplish his dreams. I just sit back and smile when I see it all.”
PJ may be coached by his dad, but it’s clear the buck stops with mom, who asked Kentucky fans to help keep her son in line next season.
“I want Kentucky fans to know that PJ Washington is going to work hard. If he’s not, let me know. But he’s a great kid. If you see him out anywhere, he’s very approachable because he knows mom will get on him, and dad. And if I get any reports that he’s not…He’s a good kid, he really is. Very respectful. He knows right from wrong. If you see him out and he’s doing something he’s not supposed to, get on him. Get him back in line, straighten him up.”
If the weekend in Marshall County is any indication, so far, so good.