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PJ Washington has arrived, and it’s made UK a title contender

This is the PJ everyone has been waiting for, and it’s made UK a force to be reckoned with.

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Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

PJ Washington is a man on a mission, and it’s made Kentucky a legitimate national title contender.

Kentucky’s first half at Vanderbilt was one of the best first halves in recent memory for the Wildcats. The Cats took a 45-15 lead into the halftime locker room as they dominated the Commodores in every phase of the game.

The biggest reason for that was Washington, as it only took one half for him to post a double-double. He dropped 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while adding two steals and two blocks in the first period.

Washington finished the game with 26 points and 12 rebounds. In addition, the sophomore was a perfect 3-3 from behind the three-point line. He’s now hit a trio of threes in two of his last three games.

Tuesday’s game was Washington’s third-straight 20-point performance and second-straight double-double.

Washington struggled to find consistency early on in SEC play. In Kentucky’s first meeting with Vanderbilt back on January 18th, Washington finished with only three points. The performance had many Kentucky fans worried that arguably the team’s top player would struggle as they entered the toughest stretch of the season.

It’s been the exact opposite, as the sophomore has played at a ridiculously high level, helping the Cats win games while also boosting his NBA draft stock at the same time.

Speaking of, there may not be a returning player in college basketball who has helped his stock more than Washington. He came close to going pro last year, but he likely would have been a second-round pick had he done so.

Now, Washington is locking himself into Round 1 range if and when he goes pro following this season.

“I felt it was great to come back and work on my game and show more of what I can do,” Washington said after Tuesday’s game. “I’ve done a great job of that so far. Just trying to continue to do that and be aggressive.”

But while his offense is what’s getting the attention, Washington has also taken his defense to another level. His 92.3 defensive rating is the best of any Kentucky starter, as only Nick Richards (91.0) has a better mark. His 1.3 defensive win shares leads the team, as do his .232 win shares per 40 minutes.

Washington grabs 17.5% of Kentucky’s rebound opportunities, which also leads the team (stats via Sports Reference).

Following Kentucky’s win over No. 22 Mississippi State on January 22nd, which saw Washington drop 21 points against a tough Bulldogs frontline, John Calipari had this to say about his big-man:

“How about being the best player in the country? Why would you not if you have that in you? That’s what I think he is,”

Calipari later added he believed Washington could be a player who could drop 35 points and grab 20 rebounds on any given night.

As you can imagine, Calipari was quite happy with PJ following his big night in Nashville. Then again, Cal has been expecting this all along.

“I’ve been waiting a year and a half for him to play this way,” said Calipari. “He’s getting in better shape. He’s winning all of the stuff we do when we run and condition, he’s winning.

“When something goes wrong, he doesn’t go cool now and act like it didn’t matter. Now, he bows his neck. The other thing is he’s taking on the challenges.”

Even Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew had high praise for the man who destroyed his Commodores.

“PJ was sensational,” said Drew. “I’m trying to think if there’s a player more improved than him in the country. I mean, he’s shooting the ball like he’s a two-guard. Obviously, with his length, he’s finishing. It shows what hard work in the offseason can do. Credit to him for turning his game completely around from last year to this year.”

It seems Washington has responded well to the challenge, and Kentucky is benefitting in a big way from it. If keeps this up, Kentucky is going to have a fun run in March.

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