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How P.J. Washington unlocked his NBA potential by returning to Kentucky

It’s cool to stay in school. Just ask Washington.

John Calipari has been showing off lately, and he isn’t wasting any time doing it.

Kentucky opened its SEC heavyweight showdown with Tennessee earlier this month by running a pick-and-pop three for P.J. Washington. He drained it, and then hit the Wildcats’ next two field goals. Washington opened the next game with a three against Missouri. He did it again the following game vs. Auburn, and then he hit four more triples on the night.

This wasn’t an option for Calipari a year ago. Washington, then a freshman, hit only five three-pointers the entire season. He was still an effective player for Kentucky, finishing third on the team with 10.8 points per game, but his offense was almost entirely predicated on drawing fouls.

It made Kentucky a predictable team with a noticeable lack of spacing in the front court. It also made Washington an undersized power forward without the diverse skill set demanded for the position in the eyes of NBA scouts. Washington learned this lesson the hard way when he went to the draft combine and ultimately withdrew his name because he realized he was a likely second round pick.

Coming back to school can go one of two ways for a Kentucky player. It’s easy to lose your spot in the rotation with a shiny new crop of five-star recruits coming for your minutes every year. Ask Quade Green or Marcus Lee or Sacha Killeya-Jones — three former McDonald’s All-Americans who eventually transferred because Calipari recruited over them. Their experience has led to an idea that spending multiple years in Lexington’s pro factory means you’re a failure.

There is another way this can go, however. It’s a road paved by Tyler Ulis and Willie Cauley-Stein, players who chose to come back to school and saw their stock skyrocket because of it. Ulis won SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore over Ben Simmons. Cauley-Stein worked himself into a lottery pick. As Washington continues to dominate the SEC in his second year on campus, he’s on the cusp of accomplishing both in one fell swoop.

Washington entered the week averaging 21 points and 7.9 rebounds per game on 55.7 percent shooting from the floor and 52.8 percent from three over his last 10 games. He’s in a two-horse race with Tennessee’s Grant Williams to be SEC Player of the Year. He’s also starting to creep up NBA mock drafts, positioning himself on the fringe of the lottery in ESPN’s latest projection.

Staying in school has acted as a launching pad for Washington’s career. He’s used his sophomore season to sharpen his skill level, improve physically, and boost his draft stock.

The next time a player choses to come back to school, he’ll be hoping to be the next P.J. Washington.

South Carolina v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Washington is in noticeably better cardiovascular shape this year. He’s stronger, too. Calipari has credited improvements to his body for his sophomore leap this season. It’s made him tougher to handle on the inside for opponents and given him more juice to show off his newly improved skill set.

Washington’s numbers are up across the board in every major category as a sophomore.

What a difference a year makes

Year Offensive rating Usage rate True shooting O-rebound rate D-rebound rate Assist rate Block percentage FT percentage 3P percentage
Year Offensive rating Usage rate True shooting O-rebound rate D-rebound rate Assist rate Block percentage FT percentage 3P percentage
Sophomore PJ 120.3 24.3 60 11.3 21.1 13.2 4.4 68.3 43.9
Freshman PJ 105.5 21.4 55.8 8 14.8 10.4 3.5 60.6 23.8

While shooting isn’t his only improvement, it’s certainly his most dramatic. A year ago, Washington finished his freshman year 5-of-21 from three-point range. He’s 30-for-67 as a sophomore as the calendar turns to March.

A newfound jump shot has unlocked the rest of his game.

“He’s big and strong enough to physically dominate the most physical power forwards in the country and yet he’s quick enough and skilled enough to be able to step out on the floor and do things like a big guard.”

These are the worlds of Auburn coach Bruce Pearl after he watched Washington drop 24 points and six rebounds on 9-of-13 shooting and 5-of-8 from three-point range last week. It touched on an idea that has gained traction among NBA draftniks — maybe Washington ultimately projects as an oversized wing in the NBA.

Washington’s improved shooting ability is the basis for this — he’s been able to rise and fire confidently and quickly as a catch-and-shoot threat all season. He can also put pressure on the defense when he’s run off the line, either as a passer or as someone who can revert back into big man mode to put a small defender on his back and score over him:

From an NBA perspective, there’s a chance Washington can play three positions. At 6’8, 230 pounds with a 7’3 wingspan, he’s long and strong enough to spend minutes at center in a downsizing league while also being able to slide down the lineup if his shot holds up. What he lacks in elite athleticism he can make up for with smarts and skill.

From Kentucky’s perspective, Washington’s emergence as a superstar solves so many of the team’s issues.

Though Kentucky was hyped as preseason No. 1 candidate and a favorite to win it all, the Wildcats still had some real problems. Notably: they lacked spacing in the front court. Most importantly, they lacked a star player.

Washington has cured both overnight. His front court pairing with grad transfer Reid Travis is so much more tenable now that he’s a knockdown shooter. At 44.8 percent from deep on the year, Washington hasn’t just morphed into a capable shooter, he’s become the best shooter on the team.

Kentucky doesn’t have to pray for a huge night from Keldon Johnson every game. It doesn’t have to hope Tyler Herro gets hot from three. It doesn’t have to rely on pounding the ball inside to Travis or relying on offensive rebounds to get the offense going.

A year ago, Washington found a way to be productive based mostly on physicality by finishing No. 3 in the country in foul rate. He’s even stronger now, but he doesn’t need to play bully ball anymore. His burgeoning skill level has opened so many more doors.

Instead of spending time in the G League or being glued to an NBA bench, Washington is going to be one of March Madness’ biggest stars. In a way, his rise has shown what college basketball can do for you. At the same time, it’s a testament to his personal work ethic to use this second year in school to get better instead of doubling down on the things he was already good at.

Staying in school can often be the right choice for a player. Look no further than P.J. Washington.