P.J. Washington has been consistent with how he’s approaching the upcoming NBA Draft. If he doesn’t have a first-round guarantee, he plans on coming back to Kentucky. Simple as that. He had an impressive freshman season, but odds are he’s not going to get that guarantee. Returning for another season as a Wildcat is his best option.
Washington has NBA potential and a ton of it. He showcased his skills in 37 games in a Kentucky uniform last season and while he experienced plenty of ups and downs (just like all freshman do), he needs Kentucky more than he needs the NBA, at least for one more season.
Now I’ll start by stating that I am a believer in the concept that spending one year with an NBA team can do more for young basketball players, specifically 19 and 20-year olds, than two or three seasons in college. However, that logic really only applies to players such as Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who are guaranteed first round picks and likely lottery selections. Knox and SGA have NBA ready talent, even if they aren’t remotely close to being polished players. Washington, if he decides to stay in the draft, doesn’t have an aspect to his game that screams “NBA ready”. He would likely earn some guaranteed money if he went in the second round, but it wouldn’t be worth sitting in the G League for a season or two when he can be one of Kentucky’s best two or three players before the first exhibition game. But he’s shown more than enough potential that he can one day bring that NBA readiness to the table, which is where one more season at Kentucky comes into play.
Washington averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in 27.4 minutes per game last year. There were stretches during the season where he was without-a-doubt Kentucky’s best player and other stretches where he felt nonexistent. His game greatly evolved over the course of the season and by the time the NCAA Tournament came around, fans knew exactly what Washington was going to bring to the table on every given night. He was the inside bruiser who could punish opponents in the paint with pure strength but also pop out and hit a mid-range jump shot if he needed to. He went to the free throw line 208 times, more than any other Kentucky player and 33 more times than the next closest Wildcat (SGA). He may not have been the most efficient at the line (60.6 percent on the season) and even earned himself the nickname “Mr. One-for-two”, but it never deterred him from fighting down low.
His ability to get to the line is actually one of the major factors to his game that would make him an enticing second-round pick for this year’s draft. He finished in the 99.5 percentile in regards to his 80.5 percent free throw rate (which is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt), despite being undersized. He measured at six-foot-eight, 223 pounds in the NBA combine, which is smaller than usual for someone who will play the four in the NBA, but long arms, great basketball instincts in the paint, and NBA small-ball will benefit him more in the current NBA landscape than it would have 10 or even five years ago. If he can add a bit more muscle to his already impressive frame, he can be a brute in the paint. He’s incredibly quick off the floor and hardly seems phased by contact. If anything, he encourages it.
What Washington especially needs to improve upon is his perimeter scoring. He flashed his ability to knock down threes a tiny bit during the beginning of the season (going 4-17 from deep through the first 20 games) but regressed in that area as the season went on (he attempted only four threes the next 17 games going 1-4). He has a smooth – and surprisingly quick – stroke but lacks the consistency to be a realistic threat. On its own, big men being able to knock down triples at an effective rate will get them drafted high in the order. It’s arguably the most necessary component to running a spaced offense in the modern NBA. If Washington hadn’t abandoned the three (even though it was what was best for the team in hindsight) and boosted his percentages to the mid-thirties, he’d be a much more valuable prospect in this year’s draft. Coming back and improving on that will cause his stock to soar.
Washington is a great high-energy player who can handle his own on the block, but the ability to be a multi-layer offensive weapon is key for an undersized big at the next level. Shooting 66 percent at the rim last season was impressive, but shooting a lowly 34.5 percent on all other two-point attempts is disconcerting. Coming back to Kentucky would allow him to put in an entire offseason’s worth of work into his jump shot and add that extra dimension to his offensive game that he desperately needs.
Another year at Kentucky would also give him a chance to expand his potential as a ball-handler. He didn’t do much of taking the ball up or dribbling in the open court last season, but in the few glimpses we did see, it was clear that he is more than capable. He has the opportunity to morph into a Draymond Green prototype player, one who plays big despite being undersized and can also bring the ball up, resulting in other bigs having to chase him around the court. Kentucky will have plenty of ball handlers next season so the need for him to do so may be unnecessary, but Washington should at the very least be encouraged to turn and go after pulling down defensive rebounds. He’s quick and strong enough to take the ball end-to-end, especially if he has a clear mismatch.
Washington is going to be a valuable NBA player one day, there is no doubt in my mind about that. He has a rather unique skill set and a monster frame, his basketball abilities just need to catch up to him first. If he can become a more impactful ball handler and legitimate outside scoring threat, he might be looking at being more than just a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Coming back to Kentucky would ensure another loaded roster and he would be one of the featured stars. Washington ended his freshman season at Kentucky on a sour note against Kansas State, if he comes back for one more season he could be one of the most dominant and versatile big men in all of college basketball.
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