I’m not sure where PJ Washington ranks among the all-time great redemption stories Kentucky’s illustrious basketball history, but what I can tell is what a difference a year can make.
Washington, with a broken pinky and all the pressure in the world on him, had one of the most horrific shooting performances from the free-throw line during Kentucky’s Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State to cap his freshman season.
The power forward rebooted his career by losing weight, getting quicker, stronger and better in the gym, and all it took was a few minutes during a highly successful preseason trip to the Bahamas that showed the world that PJ Washington wasn’t the same kid.
Not only was Washington the best player on the roster this past season, he was their leader with his play and with his emotional fire on the floor in Year 2. The transformation was night and day for Washington and now, we’ll begin with him to reflect on some of the better moments of the season that was and how it helped him become the 12th overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft to the Charlotte Hornets.
To start out this little collection of fun, here’s the top five moments of PJ Washington from the 2018-19 season, starting out with the game that turned Kentucky’s season around after a sluggish start to the campaign.
5. Washington, along with Hagans and Travis, “save” the season
Be honest. You had severe doubts about Kentucky going into the pre-Christmas CBS Sports Classic showdown with North Carolina in Chicago, didn’t you? It’s totally fine if you did. (Between you and me, I had UNC winning that game coming in.)
Along with Ashton Hagans’ stellar defensive performance that put him on the college basketball map as one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation throughout this past season, Reid Travis and PJ Washington carried the ‘Cats up front to the tone of 31 combined points between the two bigs and 11 of Kentucky’s 24 (!) assists on the evening in an 80-72 victory that many saw as the turning point of this last season and rightfully so.
Hagans wrecked havoc over likely lottery pick Coby White and the Tar Heels guards all evening long defensively, but it was the dominant play on the offensive end from Kentucky’s version of the “Bash Brothers” (the Crash Brothers?) that “saved” Kentucky’s season.
4. Ice in his veins
Was is it just me or whenever Kentucky needed a big bucket, the ball was dumped into No. 25 in white or blue depending on the setting?
Let’s take a look here: trailing 65-62 in the controversial loss to LSU at home back February with 3:33 left, Washington drives the cup and scores with the right hand. After falling behind 69-64 in the same game, Washington sets a screen, catches at the nail, drives on the left hand and scores (and coverts) a three-point play.
Trailing now 69-67 to the Tigers with 1:12, Washington gets himself a one-on-one chance off the left block (as he’s done so many times before), dribbles into the paint, turns off the left shoulder and ties the game.
After this season, do you even remember PJ Washington trying to make clutch-time freebies in that Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State two years ago with a broken finger? How many big plays did Washington make this year?
The point is, PJ Washington stepped up more often than not when his team needed him and they really needed him throughout this season. It’s hard to pick just one moment like that, too. That’s how clutch he was.
3. ON HIS HEAD (and on Little Brother)
Remember when the Cats went west to play ... that other team in the state of Kentucky back in December? (That was the other candidate for “The Ashton Hagans Game” this past season.)
Early on in the contest, PJ Washington gave the ‘Cats an early adrenaline shot in the arm when he caught a semi-but not really-transition lob from Hagans on Christen Cunningham’s dome.
The Big Blue Nation dunked on Louisville fans during football and basketball season in any conversation that was had about the two schools, but it was nice to see a Wildcat actually dunk on someone from there, right? (Oh, and the most important part: Kentucky won the game.)
2. Washington > Williams
Look, I think we can all admit that Grant Williams is a really good basketball player and a good human being because, well ... he is.
But, the SEC Player of the Year was PJ Washington and I don’t really care to hear any arguments that he wasn’t because, well ... how many times did he show he was against Tennessee?
Sure, the Vols beat the Cats twice in three meetings this season, both really without Reid Travis for one whole game and then at the end of that SEC Tournament thriller in the semifinals because of questionable foul calls, but every time I looked, it was PJ Washington (who mind you, sprained his foot and sent Big Blue Nation into a frenzy during that game and beyond) that carried the load for the Cats.
One little reminder: the one game Kentucky played Tennessee at full strength without any foot injury to Washington and without Travis coming back from a knee injury that almost ended his season ... Washington scored 23 points and grabbed five rebounds as Kentucky beat No. 1 Tennessee convincingly on their home floor, 86-69. I’m just saying.
1. The other heroic play(s) before Herro became the hero
Tyler Herro shot his way into Kentucky lore forever with his go-ahead and game-winning 3-pointer in UK’s heart-pounding 62-58 win over Houston in the Sweet 16 this past spring, but the effort that a not quite-100 percent PJ Washington gave in that contest should not be forgotten.
Playing in his first game in two weeks against the feisty Cougars, Washington scored 16 points in 26 minutes (!) and that block that gave the Cats the chance to take the lead?
Who else would it have been but PJ Washington himself?
(Also, and you’ll see below in the sequence that was ... remember that it was Washington that put the Cats in a position to win the game after a ridiculously-tough bucket from the left block (shocker!) to trim Houston’s lead to 58-57 before Herro’s triple.)
And for the icing on the cake, Washington dropped 28 on Auburn in his final college game and second after the foot injury because you shouldn’t have expected anything different.