We’re about to enter the time of year when the question of which freshmen stay and which go to the NBA dominates the Kentucky Basketball landscape; thanks to PJ Washington, one of those options looks a whole lot better.
Last summer, PJ passed on the NBA to return to school to improve his stock, a gamble that’s paid off. Last year, he was projected to be a second round pick; now, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has him going in the lottery. This morning, he became an NCAA Consensus All-American, Kentucky’s first since Malik Monk in 2017, the ninth under John Calipari, and the 39th in program history.
Sunday’s result makes legacy talk tricky, but I’d argue PJ’s biggest contribution is proving that the one-and-done route isn’t the only path to the NBA at Kentucky. Coming into this season, an unfortunate pattern was starting to form in Lexington. The best of the best freshmen were able to get drafted just fine, but the tier just below, of which we’ve seen more and more in recent years, came in with the same expectations only to be disappointed. Sometimes, that sense of failure led players to transfer. Sometimes it led players to go pro anyway and try their chances in the G-League. Whatever the reason, it was a troubling trend that needed to be nipped in the bud, and should PJ be drafted as high as expected, he’ll be the one to do it, which could have an immeasurable impact on the program for years to come.
Let’s dip into how he did it, starting with how his numbers improved from freshman to sophomore year:
Here are the areas in which PJ improved his game the most:
Scoring: 32.4% increase
This year, PJ scored 531 points (15.2 points per game), an increase of 32.4% from last season’s 401 (10.8 points per game). In the final 18 games he played this season, he averaged 18.3 points, an even bigger increase from last season. More often than not, when Kentucky’s offense stalled, PJ played savior, bullying inside for easy buckets. If there was a category for “games saved,” he might lead it.
Three-point shooting: Improved by 177%
The number one thing NBA teams advised PJ to do was expand his game. After going only 5-21 (23.8%) from three-point range last season, that was a tall task, but PJ proved the naysayers wrong, hitting 33-78 (42.3%) from the outside this season. Against Auburn in Rupp Arena this year, he hit a career-high five threes, tying his total from last season.
Rebounding: 25.1% increase
Another piece of advice PJ received from the NBA: work harder on the boards. Last season, he had 211 rebounds across 37 games for an average of 5.7 per game; this year, he had 264 rebounds in 35 games for an average of 7.5 per game. All of that while sharing the middle with Reidbound Travis. As a result, he finished with nine double doubles this year to only three last year. Impressive.
Whether Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro decide to go to the NBA this year remains to be seen, but PJ’s proved that’s not the only viable option if you need some extra time to develop; for that, be thankful.