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2019 NBA Draft Profiles: P.J. Washington could be the Wizards’ ideal power forward

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Every team wants to find a versatile defender and shooter at the four. Should the Wizards bring Washington to ... Washington?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs Kentucky Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards will draft ninth overall in the 2019 NBA Draft on Thursday, June 20. Leading up to the draft, we will write about the players whom the Wizards will likely have available to draft with that pick. Today’s article profiles P.J. Washington, a scoring forward out of Kentucky.

P.J. Washington, Forward, Kentucky

In a bygone era, P.J. Washington might’ve been dismissively labeled a “tweener.” At 6-foot-8 and 230 lbs., Washington is a bit smaller than your traditional power forward but a bit bigger than your average small forward.

But any positional awkwardness for players of Washington’s size was eradicated four years ago, when Draymond Green took the league by storm as the defending, playmaking conduit of one of the best teams in basketball history. Now, team after team searches for a Draymond to call their own — though no one has yet quite replicated the magic of the Warriors’ Death Lineup.

Some team will likely try to do so anew with Washington, a sophomore out of Kentucky who guided his perpetually young team to yet another solid season under Coach John Calipari. Washington became the rare non-one-and-done Wildcat after draftniks pegged his stock in the second round after his freshman year. He returned to the NCAA with a vengeance, bolstering his statistical impact in every area and evolving into Kentucky’s clear leader by season’s end.

Washington posted 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 blocks and 0.8 steals in his sophomore campaign on .522/.423/.663 shooting splits. Washington thrived as an inside-out scorer with enough length (7-foot-2 wingspan) to bother opponents on both ends.

After his breakout year, Washington raised his stock from the late second round to the edge of the lottery. He will almost certainly be available for the Wizards at 9 and is expected to go anywhere between 12 and 20 according to most mock drafts. It may not be a value pick to take Washington at 9, but the Wizards could explore moving back a few spots and acquiring an additional asset in the process.

For that to happen, the Wizards would have to know Washington is their guy — and there’s good reason to think he could be among the best fits available.

Strengths

The 2018-19 Kentucky Wildcats knew they could only go as far as P.J. Washington could take them. Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said as much to The Athletic during the season: “When we’re not playing great offensively or defensively, when the game is tight, what has P.J. Washington done? I will challenge P.J. Washington to max out. He has to give 110 percent, and if he does, this team becomes dominant.”

The reason Payne felt so strongly about Washington’s importance is reflected in P.J.’s all-encompassing influence on his team’s play. Particularly on the offensive end, Washington was the center of Kentucky’s most successful actions. Nearly every game, Washington gutted out a handful of buckets with quick hooks in the post; he drained one or two pick-and-pop threes; he sprinted out and finished a few transition opportunities.

When taken together, a picture starts to form of Washington as an archetypal do-it-all four in the mold of a Paul Millsap or Taj Gibson. To get there, Washington remade his jumper between year one and year two of his college career and his 3-point shooting jumped nearly 20 percentage points. The second-year results seemed more indicative of Washington’s natural feel — he shows great touch with his array of hooks, flip shots and banked layups.

Still, Washington’s sophomore year rate of 42.3 percent on threes is probably a bit inflated relative to his actual skill level — consider the 66.3 percent free-throw shooting — but he should be a roughly average shooter for his position at worst.

That shooting threat could unlock Washington’s dribble-drive game, where he often showed surprising and delightful vision for his size. A narrowly negative assist-to-turnover ratio, mostly the cause of overpassing and a mediocre handle, belies Washington’s intriguing passing potential at the next level. He can sling it off the dribble, in the post and after cuts.

Washington seems willing to fit into a team concept — he was clearly Kentucky’s best player, yet he still wanted to get his teammates involved when possible. The ability to operate within one’s limits is an underrated NBA skill, and Washington is a prospect that for the most part knows what he can and cannot do (a few inadvisable shots here and there aside).

Washington also notably has a pedigree that may indicate some latent upside. As noted by The Stepien, he was among the very best players on the 2015-2016 high school EYBL circuit, often outplaying solid NBA rookies like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley. That history paired with the knowledge that Calipari’s schemes often underutilize his frontcourt’s skills suggests there may be even more offensive juice to P.J. Washington than we’ve yet seen.

Defensively, Washington projects to fit in well guarding both forward positions. His size and length may even let him play the five at times, credibly guarding anyone other than the Joel Embiids and Nikola Jokices of the world. Washington’s block and steal numbers were fine and his awareness was good when locked in. Washington’s potential on this side of the ball is more theoretical than tangible for the moment, but his defensive ceiling is perhaps even higher than on offense.

Weaknesses

P.J. Washington currently does most of the big things, but he has yet to grasp the importance of doing all the little things.

For such a promising looking defender, it has been widely acknowledged that Washington’s motor was not always running at top-speed in college. This often resulted in haphazard closeouts, poor fundamentals or missed opportunities. The Ringer noted this in the site’s draft preview, saying about Washington: “Inconsistent motor and focus while defending off-ball or boxing out; doesn’t always make hustle plays like diving for loose balls and taking charges.”

Washington struggled to maintain peak intensity and awareness for 40 minutes a game. He is also not a nuclear athlete by any means; he mostly operates below the rim and relies on skill and guile to score inside. He scored perfectly well in the paint in college, but that success may not continue when faced with wall-to-wall NBA athleticism.

For this reason and others, Washington’s ultimate offensive upside is limited. He will almost certainly never be a star on that end — his handle is too wild; his decision-making too inconsistent; his shooting too much of a question mark. As comforting as it is to believe in that over 40 percent mark from three, the larger sample size suggests Washington is more likely to top out as an average marksman.

As mentioned above, that’s perfectly fine for a role player, but the Wizards may want more from their #9 pick. The bottom line: NBA players who aren’t physical specimens or elite shooters need to stay competitive and engaged at all times to excel — does P.J. have that gene?

What was Washington’s best game in college?

Washington returned from an injury in the NCAA Tournament hoping to spearhead Kentucky’s national title bid. Facing SEC foe Auburn in the Elite Eight, and with his somewhat severe sprained foot still lingering, Washington put up 28 points and 13 rebounds. He fell just short of carrying Kentucky to victory in an OT classic.

Fit for the Wizards

For years, the Wizards have searched for a competent, two-way stretch four. Kris Humphries, Jared Dudley, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith, Mike Scott — they all failed to establish themselves as the long-term solution to the Wizards’ quandary. Maybe P.J. Washington can be the answer.

I like that he was a top-tier high school recruit who held his own with the best of the best. I like that he made massive improvements to his game after returning to Kentucky for a second season. I like that he is an ideal trade-back candidate, which could help the Wizards earn another asset.

Given his age and grown-man size, Washington should also be ready to play right away — a nice bonus. Plug him into a role similar to what Jabari Parker played this past season, and you might see some really intriguing stuff.

Though his upside is not as high as some others, and moving back would be ideal, I would still happily take Washington at No. 9.


Do you think the Wizards should target P.J. Washington in the draft? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.