Still, Washington wouldn’t bite during a pregame press conference when he was asked multiple times whether he’d play. “I don’t know yet,” Washington said. “I walked over here. That’s good. I’m thinking of giving it a go. It’s just up in the air.”
As it turned out, Washington did more than give it a go. He played 26 minutes, scored 16 points and was clutch in the final five minutes as Kentucky got past the Cougars 62-58 and advanced to the Elite Eight.
“We don’t win the game today without him,” Calipari said.
How did Washington do it?
“I took some pain pills before the game,” he said. “Kind of started hurting in the second half, but I had to tough through it.”
Though Kentucky lost to Auburn — a team it had beaten twice in the regular season — in the Elite Eight, that didn’t put a damper on Washington’s comeback, or the season he put together.
Washington struggled late in the non-conference season and early in SEC play, failing to reach double-figure scoring against North Carolina (five points in 33 minutes), Texas A&M (nine in 28) and Vanderbilt (three in 32), but once he emerged, he was hard to handle.
Starting with a 21-point effort against Mississippi State’s rugged front line on Jan. 22 and ending with 23 against Tennessee on Feb. 16, Washington averaged 21 points in an eight-game stretch. Kentucky lost just once during that run and only twice through the January and February.
Washington was a big reason. SEC pundits began to take notice of his all-around game and some began to opine he could overtake presumptive league player of the year favorite Williams. Williams went on a tear of his own in the regular season’s final few games and wound up with that POY trophy, but Washington’s efforts — he averaged a team-high 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds — weren’t lost on NBA scouts.
Washington has a complete package. He uses his 7-foot-3 wingspan to full advantage, blocking shots or launching a deadly jump hook. After shooting 23.8 from 3-point range as a freshman and taking just 21 shots from behind the arc, he became a legitimate threat (41.9, 31-for-47). He’s has the patience to see plays develop and affect them with his passing ability. Washington, again taking advantage of his length, can also defend multiple positions.
After Washington racked up 20 points and 13 rebounds against Kansas in a late-January game in the Big 12-SEC Challenge, Calipari raved about the sophomore’s energy. Cal’s job isn’t necessarily easier because he recruits so many five-star freshmen. Great players have to exert effort, too, and sometimes it can be difficult to convince them that a higher level of competition demands a higher level of engagement.
“I think when he plays at a different pace, a different level of intensity, a different level of bouncing and alertness, he’s as good as anybody in the country,” Calipari said. “When he doesn’t, he’s okay. So that becomes, what do you want? And then when you play that way, the hard thing is, to live up to that and have to do that all the time. That’s when you become special, where you thrive in that environment.”
After making a wise decision to stay in school after his freshman season, Washington bought into Cal’s logic and thrived in the environment. The results were evident on the floor, and should be on NBA Draft day, too. He’s a consensus first-round pick and some mock drafts have listed him in the lottery.