One and Not Done: Lessons Learned from PJ Washington
Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari is notorious for bringing in collections of elite talent for one season at a time before the touted prospects leave for the NBA. Coach Calipari has done a terrific job of having individuals learn to play as a team, especially on the defensive end. We as basketball fans expect any five-star Kentucky commit to declare for the NBA draft after their lone season at Kentucky, however, we are in the midst of seeing a deterred plan panning out for the better of the player and Kentucky.
Sophomore PJ Washington is currently Kentucky’s leading scorer and rebounder. Washington has also evolved as the Wildcats emotional leader on the court as well. However, Washington did not initially plan to stay more than one year with Kentucky. Washington was a consensus top-20 recruit in the class of 2017, his role was expected to be one highlighting his versatility on both ends of the court.
Simply put, Washington’s freshman year did not go as hoped. Rebounding was an immediate strength of Washington, but his physical profile and perimeter shooting struggles did not project well into the NBA. Washington returned to Kentucky a different looking player, literally. He transformed his body in the off-season, gaining strength and slimming down, finally looking like an NBA player. This season Washington has improved across all major categories such as points, shooting from two and three and even rebounding. Washington has scored no less than 25 points during Kentucky’s last 10 games!
The Per-40 stats help tell the dramatic improvement of Washington’s game. Washington’ scoring has improved by five points per game, total rebounds have improved by three per game, and his 3PT% has improved by 20 percentage points!
PJ Washington’s story can stand to benefit other players who were initially expecting to leave for the pros after their freshman year, only to have a season that hurt their draft stock. Washington’s story should also be contrasted with previous players who stayed an extra year in college when their post-freshman draft stock was extremely high.
Boston Celtics star Marcus Smart had a sensational freshman season at Oklahoma State. Smart was projected to be a high lottery pick if he declared. However, Smart returned for his Sophomore year in an effort to improve and show increased shooting ability. However, Smart’s sophomore year did not show an improvement with his shooting, or any significance that would have caused him to move up in the upper-echelon (Top-3) of the NBA Draft.
Daniel Gafford of Arkansas provides a current look of a Marcus Smart situation. Gafford was not a five-star recruit entering college, yet he managed to have a sensational freshman season that placed him squarely in the lottery for the 2018 NBA Draft. Gafford returned to Arkansas in efforts to show that his game was still developing and more range than what the NBA was projecting him to be, which was a rim-running and defending player who could rebound as well. Gafford is having a good season this year, however his game has not expanded beyond what it was the year prior. The lack of progression can be tied to the personnel of his team, but the college environment itself must be seriously examined.
To state the obvious, once you enter the NBA you are a professional. There are no other primary requirements (unless you have a family) besides playing basketball. This is not the case in college. The NCAA has strict limits on hours you can practice and be with your coaches, as well as enforcing academic requirements that must be met so a player can be eligible to play. I find absolutely nothing wrong with staying in college to improve your game; college is a rare period in one’s life where you are surrounded by your peers in an intimate setting like a college campus. However, there are other obstacles to improving your basketball ability in college that is not basketball itself.
The off-season is now even more vital for college players who return and are wishing to improve their draft stock. As mentioned earlier, PJ Washington used the time between his freshman and sophomore season to transform his body and add elements to his game that professional evaluators had not yet seen when Washington was a freshman or in high-school. Other college freshman who find themselves in the same predicament that Washington did will have to fully commit to an intense off-season training schedule in order to prove that their basketball abilities have the capability to grow, and the ceilings of their potential have yet to be reached.
By Evan Kurland