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Kentucky Basketball Player Preview: New-look PJ Washington ready to lead Wildcats

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The lasting images of Washington’s freshman season is the 12 missed free throws during Kentucky’s Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State. That’s quickly become a thing of the past for the soon-to-be emotional leader of this year’s ‘Cats.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

Who are we talking about?

PJ Washington, sophomore forward

What did he do last season?

Like this upcoming season, PJ Washington was one of Kentucky’s best players with his ability to not only dominate down low offensively at times, but on the glass as well.

Washington grabbed a shade under eight percent of the offensive rebound opportunities (7.9%) and almost 15 percent of the defensive rebounding opportunities when he was on the floor (14.8%). He gave the ‘Cats an emotional spark throughout last season and with his improved play that’s already been on display in the Bahamas on both sides of the floor.

2017-18 statistics:

37 games (30 starts), 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 27.4 minutes per game on 51.9 percent shooting. He shot 60.6 percent on 5.6 attempts from the line.

His best performance from last season:

Washington’s 22-point, six-rebound, three-steal, two-block performance against Mississippi State on Jan. 23 could easily be argued as his most complete performance. Not only did Washington’s stat line feature his season-high with points, it ended a mid-season two-game losing streak for the ‘Cats in conference play (before a three-game win streak and then that weird four-game losing streak).

Other options for Washington’s best performance could be, well ... most of his performances late last season.

In the final 12 games of the season, Washington averaged 12.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on 57.6 shooting. There was only one game — the SEC Tournament title game win over Tennessee — where Washington didn’t score in double figures.

Here’s the weird thing about that 8-for-20 free throw shooting performance in Atlanta against Kansas State: Washington had 18 points and 15 rebounds in that game ... all of that with a broken pinky that required surgery.

PJ Washington is in line for a huge, draft stock-rising season

If you didn’t catch any of Washington or the ‘Cats during their preseason Bahamas trip this summer, here’s a breakdown of Washington’s excellent performances.

To sum things up, you’re going to love PJ Washington this season. He’s lost weight, he’s quicker, and he’s still going to be handing out mean mugs.

Washington returned to Lexington in large part to his draft stock not being as high as expected and with what he learned about his game and his body during the draft process before returning to the school, the sophomore forward looks like a new man.

“Washington looks to be in much better shape and was competing with higher intensity than we saw from him for most of last season,” ESPN draft expert Jonathan Givony wrote after the Bahamas trip.

“He had some very impressive moments rotating for blocks inside and outside the arc with excellent timing. If he can indeed continue to protect the rim, switch out onto guards on pick-and-rolls and hold his own on the defensive glass, he’ll make a strong case for himself as a versatile, small-ball big man.”

During Kentucky’s Pro Day, Washington measured in at 6’6.5” without shoes and 6’8” with shoes along with a lengthy 7’3” wingspan. That length, combined with Washington’s improvement foot speed and weight loss, could make for a big-time improvement on the defensive end.

Side note: Washington had the second-best defensive box plus-minus on last year’s team when you take out Jarred Vanderbilt’s 14-game performance, trailing only Wenyen Gabriel’s 5.2 DBPM. The same goes for individual defensive rating, where if you eliminate Vanderbilt and Tai Wynyard’s ratings, Washington’s rating of 102.7 was just behind Gabriel’s by .4 last year.

This season will bring one of Kentucky’s best teams under coach John Calipari, and Washington is one of the big reasons why that is. There’s plenty of youth, but there’s not really a weakness with this team heading into this season.

There’s 10 times the amount of better shooting compared to last season, there’s an experienced All-Pac-12 First Team member as a transfer in the front court with Washington, and then there’s Washington, an emotional leader and a much improved player from just seven months ago.