Neither Tyler Herro nor P.J. Washington was considered a consensus top 5 pick ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft, but they’ll both receive plenty of votes when the Rookie of the Year ballots are released.
Both of them fell out of the top 10 draft picks, eventually being picked back-to-back with the Charlotte Hornets snagging Washington at No. 12 and the Miami Heat securing Herro at No. 13. The clear winners of the 2019 Draft were the two teams lucky enough to have the ping pong Gods gift them Zion Williamson (Pelicans) and Ja Morant (Grizzlies), however, the two former Kentucky Wildcats wound up as two of the biggest steals from that night in June.
During their time in Lexington, it was hard to deny the potential of both Herro and Washington: one was a pure-shooter with a melodic playstyle and the other was a slightly undersized bruiser who came back for a sophomore year and completely transformed the narrative surrounding him. Going into draft night, they weren’t considered as immediate impact stars or franchise changers.
It didn’t take long for that narrative to change, too.
Before the 2019-20 season could even tipoff, the Hornets were quick to brag on Washington, and his head coach even said he could see Washington as a day-one starter. It was his innate basketball IQ that struck the Hornets coaching staff; Washington came off like a veteran before even playing one game in the NBA.
“He’s athletic, he’s long, he plays bigger than I thought. He gives us size on the defensive end, and IQ at both ends of the floor,” Hornets head coach James Borrego said of Washington ahead of the 2019-20 season. “Looks like he’s been doing this for a couple of years.”
In Washington’s first NBA game, he proved everybody within the Charlotte front office right. On opening night the one-time Wildcat poured in 27 points, making history at the same time by drilling a rookie-record seven triples in his NBA debut. His five first-half triples tied the record for most in one half during an NBA debut. Washington wasn’t even announced as a starter up until roughly 90 minutes before tipoff. A hand injury during the middle of opening night to forward Nicolas Batum gave Washington a long leash throughout the early stages of the year.
In addition to his 27 points during his debut, Washingon added four rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one block. From that point until the season was suspended on March 12, he started all but one of the 58 games he appeared in for the Hornets. Washington broke the 20-point scoring threshold in seven outings, posted four double-doubles, and played the fifth-most minutes amongst all rookies.
The only hiccup was when it was announced back in the middle of December that a fractured finger would sideline Washington through Christmas. He ended up sitting out five consecutive games before returning to drop 14 points and five assists in 37 minutes his first game back. When the season was put on pause due to the coronavirus, Washington was averaging 12.2 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 45.5 percent from the floor and 37.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Despite being drafted outside of the top 10, Washington ranks in the top 10 amongst all rookies in points (8th), field goals made (8th), 3-pointers made (8th), rebounds (1st), assists (10th), steals (7th), and blocks (3rd). It hasn’t even been a full season yet and Washington has already proved he was worthy of a top 10 selection.
And he’s not the only one.
Tyler Herro needed just four NBA games before he showcased his fearless attitude on the court. Dropping 14 points apiece during his first two professional outings and a mediocre eight-points during his third, Herro exploded on Oct. 29, 2019.
It was the second quarter, in particular, that put on display Herro’s unconscious shooting abilities. 19 of his 29 points from that night came in just the second period as he was firing at will with endless encouragement from his teammates. He shot 7-9 from the field overall and was 3-4 from deep to go along with seven rebounds.
“It [Herro’s skill] doesn’t surprise me and I don’t think it surprises anyone in this building anymore,” Miami Heat star and Herro’s teammate Jimmy Butler said after the win. “It damn sure shouldn’t surprise anybody in the league. The guy’s a real player.”
From then on, the rest of the league was put on notice. Herro ended up averaging 12.9 points and 4.0 rebounds in 47 games (six starts) for Miami while shooting 41.4 percent from the floor and 39.1 percent from distance. Unfortunately, a late-season ankle injury held Herro out for 15 straight games. When he finally did make his return on March 11, playing a cautious seven minutes, the league was put on hiatus soon after. Herro even said himself that he believes he would have been in the top “1 or 2” for the Rookie of the Year race had the injury not kept him on the bench.
Despite the injury, he didn’t need the glory of a top 10 pick to post top 10-worthy numbers. Herro was 10th amongst rookies in points, 11th in minutes played, 11th in field goals made, and fifth in 3-pointers made. Miami is loaded with talent, too. It’s not as though Herro was thrown minutes by default; he earned every single one of them.
Herro set a Heat franchise record on Jan. 22, draining seven triples as he finished with 25 points. The Heat had actually fumbled a 21-point lead in that game to the Washington Wizards before pulling out an overtime victory. Up until that point in the season, the Heat had not lost a game that went into overtime (8-0). Just a month before that, Herro pulled off one of the ballsiest shots you’ll ever see a rookie shoot in a comeback win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Just a couple of weeks before that, he recorded 16 of Miami’s final 18 points to complete a comeback overtime win over the Chicago Bulls.
TYLER HERRO!!!!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/Y9LzOen2V8
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) December 29, 2019
There is a reason why folks outside of the Heat organization view Herro as an “untouchable asset”.
Unlike Washington’s team in Charlotte, Herro’s Miami Heat squad is square in the playoffs. Miami is currently a No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference’s suspended standings and a healthy Herro will be important to any postseason run.
The NBA announced both Washington and Herro to the “Rising Stars Game” during All-Star weekend while CBS Sports tabbed the duo to its All-Rookie Team with the former as a Second-Team selection and the latter a First-Team pick. They made dramatic impacts in such a short amount of time that they deserved to be recognized. While neither of them will ultimately win Rookie of the Year (Morant and Williamson have that race locked), they made cases as two of the league’s best first-year players even though they weren’t drafted as such.
Kentucky might not be producing the same amount of top 5 NBA Draft picks that they were during John Calipari’s first five or so seasons (actually, De’Aaron Fox is Kentucky’s only top 5 selection since Karl-Anthony Towns was No. 1 in 2015), but the production has not fallen off. The mid-round picks from Kentucky are doing just as much damage as the guys drafted near the top. It’s not just Washington and Herro who have fallen victim over recent years, either. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went No. 11 in 2018. Bam Adebayo was the 14th pick in 2017. SGA is widely considered a future All-Star while Adebayo made his first All-Star game this past season. Even though it was back in 2015, Devin Booker dropped to No. 13 in that draft.
So should we truly be surprised anymore when these late-lottery picks from Kentucky turn out to be “diamonds in the rough”? Miami Heat president Pat Riley has said he makes it a point to look at players coming out of Lexington and he now has two of them with Herro and Adebayo – both as late-lotto selections.
Washington and Herro shined as surprise rookies, but they didn’t really surprise anyone who followed them during their time on Kentucky’s campus.