In the three games over the last week — two of them against top-25 competition in Mississippi State and Kansas — PJ Washington has been Kentucky’s most productive player.
During those wins over the Bulldogs, Jayhawks, and then Vanderbilt by 35 points (!) on the road Tuesday night, Washington averaged 22.3 points on 53.2 percent shooting, 10.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals per contest, while making six of his 12 attempts from 3-point territory. (He’s also making 78.6 percent of his 4.7 free-throw attempts per game in that span. The Kansas State game seems like five years ago, huh?)
“He’s getting better,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the Cats steamrolled through Vandy on Tuesday.
“He’s getting better because he’s getting in better shape. He’s winning all of the stuff we do when we run and condition. He’s winning. There’s no coolness now. When something goes wrong, he doesn’t go cool now and act like it doesn’t matter. Now, he’s bowing his neck.”
Case and point?
Coming off a game a strong performance where Reid Travis was absolutely outstanding for Kentucky in the win over Kansas on Saturday, Washington was just as good (and probably better) in the Cats’ demolition of the Commodores on Tuesday.
When you look at his stat line last night — 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting, 12 rebounds (four offensive), three steals and two assists — that’s just scratching the surface. He did just about everything and then some right out of the gate and he basically won the game for the Cats in the first half.
This was one of Washington’s most underrated plays last night in the many great ones he made.
For a guy as big as he is, to basically “catch” a low pass in stride during a break and then use his body through contact to show some soft touch at the basket for two, that’s not as easy as it looks for some guys. Kentucky’s one of the most dangerous teams in the country when they’re running and Washington is one of the reasons why (as you’ve seen twice already).
Speaking of his soft touch ...
He faces up, pass fakes to Ashton Hagans, drives middle to get around his man and shows a feathery touch with the left hand. That’s pretty stuff.
That play should also look a little familiar, too.
It’s on the other side of the lane in the MSU win, but look how easy Washington makes this look. He faces up again, drives middle and uses his length and touch to hit a nice contested floater in the lane.
This was easily my favorite offensive possession all night from the Cats and wouldn’t you know it, Washington is involved in it.
Ball reversal, post up off a screen, good pass to the opposite big, a bucket and a foul.
The Cats did an excellent job here get into their set quickly, reversing the basketball, Richards setting a pin-down screen basically to free up Washington, who made a vast decision on the pass to Richards while being doubled and the emerging center finished the possession off with two.
There’s something about this group of Kentucky bigs has them passing the ball to each other so efficiently this season. They like getting each other involved and that’s huge for this bunch.
This defensive possession was more Tyler Herro doing an excellent job fighting over a ball screen and getting in position to draw the offensive foul with the off-arm, but Washington summed up the night just for good measure with a non-credited block that got the pro-Kentucky crowd into it even more.
I thought Washington did a strong job of contesting shots around the rim on Tuesday. He was in good positioning most of the time and used those long NBA arms to frustrate a lot of shooters around the basket.
While I’m on the topic of Herro, our own Justin Hodges wrote a good piece about what makes Herro such an effective player on a nightly basis even when he’s not scoring.
Herro and Washington have shown some great chemistry at times this season and they can play pretty well off each other in spots.
I think back to a huge possession late in Kansas win where Washington, who doesn’t get as much credit for his screening as someone like Reid Travis does, but this pick-and-roll action that led to a key bucket for the Cats in the win on Saturday was lovely.
Pocket passes are included in what I like to call sexy basketball.
Backdoor cuts that work in key parts of the game can be included in that, too.
Speaking of the NBA and Washington however, this is where Washington can help his stock and where he’s gotten better at lately.
He’s been shooting the 3-ball well in this hot stretch of games (and for the season for that matter as a 41.5 percent 3-point shooter on 41 total attempts).
This was a good, quick set from the Cats. Hagans drives, drops a quick handoff to Jemarl Baker Jr., who finds Washington locked and ready to shoot, which is important here. We’ve seen how clean his jumper looks, but look how much quicker his perimeter shot looks.
That’s good stuff from a 4-man in terms of shooting technique.
In a game where Reid Travis had more free throw attempts (2) than points (1) in 21 minutes of action and Keldon Johnson didn’t make a shot until early in the second half, PJ Washington was massive.
He did literally everything. He made shots, he made perimeter jumpers, he defended, he grabbed rebounds (with two hands), he hustled up and down the floor and played to closer to his ceiling.
Plus, he had a double-double (with 10 rebounds) and more points (18) than Vandy had in the entire first half (15) by himself.
The Cats still have some things to work out on both ends of the floor, but if they and Washington are consistently playing like this (which, to be fair, was probably an outlier seeing as they shot a blistering 10-of-17 from 3 in a gym that’s haunted them for years), you’re going to like your team even more, Big Blue Nation.