P.J. Washington has been having a coming out party over the past few weeks and is showing off a skill set that projects well to the wing in the NBA.
P.J. Washington of Kentucky has been on an absolute tear.
Since a Jan. 22 game against Mississippi State, Washington’s numbers speak for themselves — in eight games, he’s averaged 21.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game. He’s shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 12-of-24 from 3. And Kentucky is 7-1 over this stretch, including a surprising blowout of Tennessee in which he scored 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting, disassembling Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield in the process.
Washington has been a tough read in terms of draft stock for a while. As a high-profile Kentucky recruit, he started last season on many 2018 NBA Draft boards but struggled to provide a positive impact for a disappointing Kentucky team, averaging just 5.7 points per game and showing concerning feel and defensive issues. Through the first month of the year, Washington had done little to assuage those concerns, outside of a hot shooting start from 3.
Washington’s physical profile lends to playing the 4 in the NBA, on paper. At 6-foot-8, 223 pounds with a 7-foot-2.5 wingspan, Washington has the length and build to be able to hold up against NBA bigs. But skill wise, he just didn’t seem to match up. Placed into a traditional 4 role, Washington doesn’t look comfortable with certain things that modern NBA 4 have to be able to do. His interior defense has been suspect for most of his two-year tenure with the Wildcats, and he doesn’t offer much of a deterrent at the rim as a weakside rim protector due to poor technique and instincts as a shot-blocker.
When it comes to rebounding against bigger opponents, he struggles to get positioning and can really get knocked off his spot, as happened against Naz Reid in the LSU loss.
Washington doesn’t have the functional strength to be a big at this point, and is probably never going to bring enough defensive value on the interior to be a positive as a big man. And at his size, it will be hard to make the bully-ball game that he’s been asked to play at times function at the NBA level. He’s clearly not Julius Randle as a face-up big; heck, he’s not even Reid Travis. And it’s been hard to see what his ultimate role would be as a big in the NBA.
But in the last eight games, Washington’s offensive responsibilities have opened up, and it’s helped refine the question around his draft stock. We shouldn’t ask, “What is Washington’s role as a big?” Instead, let’s ask, “Can Washington succeed as a 3?
The answer to this question is tough on the surface, just because Washington’s role has for the most part been removed from what we think of as traditional wing sets. But looking at specific skills, we can see how he could translate. Finishing, for instance, could be natural. He’s a skilled transition finisher, and his ability to put the ball on the deck and adjust his shot as momentum carries him towards the basket is solid.
He’s not going to power through guys at the rim, but he does have the craft to change his shot angle and adjust. Attacking primarily out of face-up looks off pump-fakes, he is comfortable enough with his handle to get an edge and work his way to the rim.
He’s also shown comfort attacking closeouts from the corner, a must for any wing at the NBA level.
Washington’s post touches aren’t really a useful barometer of much in terms of projection to the next level, but they do showcase his excellent touch, which will be useful in modern NBA touches from the wing. While these looks are the extent of his creation ability at this point, which isn’t great, it’s easy to see how he’ll fare finishing through contact, and it’s likely he’ll be able to translate these types of spin moves and counters into creating separation on drives.
The finishing is great, and it’s supplemented by his passing ability, which is misused in elbow creation attempts, and more suited to the types of accessory and swing passes that help an NBA offense flow. But the real crux of a transition down a position comes with shooting. Washington definitely isn’t a 43.4 percent shooter on volume in the NBA, somewhere closer to his career average of 37.8 percent might be closer to the truth. His mechanics changes have been positive, and he has an efficient load-up into his shot, which is ideal for the sort of catch-and-shoot looks that will likely dominate his shot profile at the next level.
Many of Washington’s attempts come at the top of the key on pick-and-pops, and adding a 3-point shot from the wing is going to be paramount to his fit in most offenses. But the corner three has been a recent addition, and again, he displays a promising comfort level.
Defensively, Washington’s fit makes more sense on the wing as well. He doesn’t get many opportunities to defend in space, but when he does, he is able to put his lateral agility to good use. He is a little jumpy at this point but still stays with most bigs on drives pretty well.
He’s a little slow to defend wings, and he presses too high when he sets up in his stance, but the bones of quality individual defense are there.
Usually, when we think of players shifting between the 3 and 4 moving from college to the NBA, we think of players going up a position. A college 3 that is skilled enough as a creator for the college level, but doesn’t have the quickness or fine skill to succeed in the same capacity in the NBA. But the truth is, modern 3s in the NBA are more often coming from the 4-spot in college offenses. Kawhi Leonard and Jae Crowder were college 3/4 hybrids. DeMarre Carroll was a throwback athletic college four. Taurean Prince and Otto Porter played as two strains of modern college playmaking 4. Robert Covington was essentially a 5 at Tennessee State. And that’s before we get to pretty much any international 3, from Bojan Bogdanovic to Davis Bertans to Juancho Hernangomez, who has some power forward play on their resume from overseas.
Not everyone can make the switch, but the 2019 NBA Draft is full of college bigs who look like they can contribute at the 3-spot at the NBA level, headlined by Grant Williams and Nassir Little. No everyone can make the transition, of course, and Washington’s quickness may not let him guard 3s at the NBA level. But to completely ignore the potential that Washington’s skill set shows on the wing because of quickness is foolish. More often, the ability to blend quick-twitch athleticism with shooting, touch, and the strength required to operate as a college stretch-4 ends up creating problems for limited small and quick wings, who can’t hope to deny the paint without help to them and get bothered by longer closeouts. Just because he probably won’t be able to defend a Will Barton or DeMar DeRozan on the wing doesn’t mean he won’t be perfectly capable against a majority of the league’s 3s from a physical standpoint.
Reframing Washington from a big prospect to a big wing helps to create an easier path to NBA value for his skill set. It’s easy to see his size and role at Kentucky and paint him into a corner, but this being the one context he’s in at the college level doesn’t mean it’s his best context. That’s the case at Kentucky more often than not, really. Washington’s most recent play highlights the skills that will make him a valuable NBA player, if he can become one — and he should be rising up draft boards because of it.