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Kentucky Basketball Roster Review: PJ Washington quietly impresses

Washington didn’t get as much attention as Gilgeous-Alexander or Kevin Knox, but he was the Cats’ third-most productive player.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kansas State vs Kentucky Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky’s 2017-18 season featured a lot of quieter performers, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox really being the team’s only standouts who received national attention.

But PJ Washington was less of a “quiet performer” and more of a “quiet success” in his freshman year.

Best known for dunking with authority and looking intimidating as hell while doing it (see below), Washington was actually a lot more than that.

Washington had the team’s third-highest field goal percentage, shooting 52 percent from the floor last year. And when you filter out players with 150 or fewer shot attempts on the year (Washington attempted 260) he jumps to first on the team. He also had the team’s highest free-throw attempt rate, and the most total rebounds (211, Jarred Vanderbilt averaged more per game).

Washington played the third-most minutes on the team, behind only Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox, and also ranked third on the team in points per game with 10.8. Actually, he was third in just about every expected category: field goal percentage, defensive rebounds per game, assists per game (ok, that one’s a bit more unexpected), blocks per game, steals per game, turnovers per game and win shares (number of wins a player contributes to his team).

But while Washington showed an ability to score in the paint, he didn’t show much versatility, and that was his biggest drawback this year. He had 21 3-point attempts and only shot 24 percent from deep. He also only shot 60 percent from the free-throw line, which killed Kentucky, as he shot the most free throws on the team.

Before going on his diet, Washington was underwhelming at best. After losing weight, Washington really stepped into a more prominent role as the Cats’ No. 3 guy.

The turn of the new year was when Washington’s game really stepped up. He rattled off five straight double-figure scoring performances in UK’s first five games of 2018. That was followed by a lull of six points against the Florida Gators, but he followed it up with his best, most dynamic game of the year. He recorded 22 points, six rebounds, two block and two steals in a 78-65 win against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

After struggling at the end of January and into early February, Washington got hot again, scoring in double figures in 11 of Kentucky’s final 12 games, which included a run of eight straight 10+ performances. Washington recorded his second double-double of the season during that stretch, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a win over the Arkansas Razorbacks.

At the end of the day, Washington was a streaky player, and struggled to stay consistent or show versatility. But he was good more often than not, and played a vital role in Kentucky’s SEC Tournament run.

Looking ahead

Washington is currently in the draft but has not hired an agent. His return would have the potential to be a huge get for Kentucky. If he works on his game and improves his versatility, he could potentially become one of the best small-ball bigs in college basketball.

But the draft evaluation process may dictate otherwise. Not everyone who returns finds themselves in a better spot than they were previously. If Washington takes that mindset and stays in the draft, Kentucky will be looking for a replacement to his presence inside (and they’ll find it in E.J. Montgomery).

For now, it appears Washington is set to stay in the draft, but if he returns, he could become UK’s best player.

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