By LARRY VAUGHT
After PJ Washington continued his impressive play with 24 points — his 10th 20-point game of the season and eighth in the last 10 games — in Saturday’s win over Auburn, I asked Auburn coach Bruce Pearl what had impressed him the most about the UK sophomore’s development this season.
Pearl gave a somewhat surprising answer but his analysis was exactly right.
“I think in PJ’s case, he had that ability a year ago. I’ve seen this (out of him before), but now it’s being brought out,” Pearl, who watched Washington play in high school, said. “I think that’s what John (Calipari) was talking about.
“Even early on in the season, this is the type of player that he saw, not so much the player that he developed. But John expected this. He just thought he’d see it sooner, in my opinion.”
That reminded me of what Paul Washington, the UK sophomore’s father and his former high school coach, told me before the season started. He said there was a lot more to his son’s game than what he showed as a freshman when he often deferred to other players. Paul Washington also reminded me that in high school, whatever it took to win was what his son did whether it was scoring, rebounding, defense or a combination of all three.
In UK’s last 10 games, Washington has averaged 21 points per game while shooting 55.7 percent from the field overall and 53 percent (19 of 36) from 3-point range. Last season in 37 games he made five 3-pointers and shot 23.8 percent from long range. Against Auburn Saturday he made five 3-pointers — the same total he had all of last season.
“He’s playing with great confidence, he’s playing a great role, and he’s been consistent with the things that he’s doing,” Pearl said. “He’s big and strong enough to physically dominate the most physical and powerful forwards in the country. Yet, he’s quick enough and skilled enough to be able to step on the floor and do things like a big guard. National player of the year candidate without question.”
National player of the year candidate? Just a few weeks ago almost everyone had conceded that honor to Tennessee junior Grant Williams.
Washington is averaging 15.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game in 27 games while shooting 53.4 percent from the field, 46.2 percent from 3-point range and 68 percent at the foul line. Every number is better than last year and soon he’ll have more blocks and steals than he did last year.
“Last year, I wouldn’t even really shoot 3’s honestly. Last year I was just trying to bully people, get to the rim and make layups; and this year I feel like my game has expanded a lot more,” Washington said after Saturday’s win. “They were denying me in the post and I was just hitting shots today and just kept shooting. They were going in and fortunately we won.”
Williams is averaging 19 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He’s shooting 56.9 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from 3 and 82.9 percent at the foul line. Like Washington, all those numbers are better than the last two years.
Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson is a believer in Washington just like Pearl
‘I think he is one of the best, if not the best player, in the country. He is a great player,” Johnson said after the Auburn win. “I mean he started us off and we just followed and kept riding off that energy.”
“He’s playing like the best player in the country right now,” UK coach John Calipari said. “He really is.”
Calipari noted that Washington’s conditioning is one reason for his improvement and why he is “not the same player” he was last year.
“He got in great condition. Now he can play basketball and, are you ready for this, you can think. If you’re not in shape, your whole thought is about, I’m dying out here. You’re not thinking ahead. You’re not anticipating. He’s in great, great condition,” Calipari said.
“I changed my mindset. I changed everything. I felt like it was the best choice for me,” Washington said.
He could have left for the NBA after his freshman season and likely would have been a second-round draft pick. Instead, he took the advice he got from NBA personnel, worked to improve and now is showcasing his talent that Calipari has been pushing to get.
But could he really unseat Williams, the overwhelming favorite for SEC player of the year when Tennessee rolled off 19 straight wins and reached No. 1in the national rankings, to win the top postseason honor in the SEC in a few weeks?
“I’d say after what we’ve seen of late it might come down to next weekend in Knoxville, and I’m not 100 percent sure that PJ needs to outplay Grant,” Sporting News college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy said.
Kentucky plays at Tennessee Saturday. LSU, Tennessee and Kentucky are all 12-2 in SEC play with four league games left but LSU has the tiebreaker edge because it won at UK and then beat Tennessee in overtime. Kentucky beat Tennessee in Rupp Arena.
But not only could Saturday’s UK-Tennessee game play a pivotal role in determining the SEC winner and possibly a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it could help decide the player of the year in the league.
“If PJ plays OK, and Kentucky wins that game and goes on to win the (SEC) championship, that might be enough,” DeCourcy said. “He has been that dominant lately, as the stakes have increased and the competition has toughened.”
Yes he has and that’s why despite the lead Williams once held, Washington should now be the leader in the SEC Player of the Year race.
“He is playing with such confidence, such poise,” CBS-TV analyst Clark Kellogg said. “He’s terrific with his back to the goal in the low post but he’s also an excellent, excellent 3-point shooter and that’s a credit to the work he’s done. The assertiveness he’s playing with, the confidence, it’s beautiful to see.”