LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky freshman PJ Washington is looking for a first-round guarantee from an NBA team to make his draft decision easier. That might be asking too much, but the NBA combine in Chicago this week should provide some clarity.
“We’ll see how he plays, assuming he can play with that pinky,” ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony said. “He’s in the same boat as about 30 guys who are in that 20-50 range that are trying to get into the first round. He’s got his work cut out for him.”
In addition to being an undersized power forward at 6-foot-7, Washington is still putting off surgery on the mangled left pinky he injured during the season at Kentucky. He played for months with it taped to his ring finger and has postponed getting it repaired so he can work out for NBA teams.
His father declined an interview with SEC Country on Monday and would not say whether PJ will participate in 5-on-5 scrimmaging at the combine, offering only this via text: “We are just waiting for a thorough evaluation of his game and how teams are viewing him.”
Givony’s latest 2018 mock draft, covering all 60 picks, does not have Washington getting picked at all — but it notes that those projections attempt to predict which players ultimately will pull out of the draft. To that end, Givony has Washington being selected 18th overall in his 2019 mock.
The biggest question NBA teams have about the former McDonald’s All-American who averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds at Kentucky last season?
“Just what is his role,” Givony said. “What separates him as a prospect? A guy like him needs to get by probably on his energy, needs to be a rebounder, a defender and maybe someone who can make occasional outside shots. He was very inconsistent in all of those areas as a freshman. He started to come around a little bit toward the end of the year, so you wonder how much of it was that learning curve that all freshmen go through, but those are the question marks people have, I think.”
The biggest way Washington could help himself at the combine (Wednesday through Sunday) and in team workouts — the Celtics, Nets, Clippers and Lakers already have hosted him — is by flashing greater potential as a shooter than he showed as a freshman in Lexington. He attempted just 21 3-pointers and made only 5.
But maybe Step 1 is even more rudimentary than that: demonstrate he’s better than a 60.6 percent free-throw shooter.
“That could be a bad sign,” Givony said. “His last college game, how many free throws did he miss? [Washington was 8 of 20 at the line in an otherwise dominant 18-point, 15-rebound game against Kansas State in the Sweet 16.] That’s not ideal. So maybe for him it’s free throws. He needs to show he can be an outside shooter, too, but you don’t want to skip steps.”
That doesn’t sound like a guy teams will be rushing to draft in the first round and hand a lucrative guaranteed contract. If not, Washington will have a much tougher choice to make soon.
“It’s real simple: If he’s guaranteed a first-round pick, then he’ll stay in the draft,” his father told The Courier-Journal last week. “If he doesn’t get that [assurance], we’ll have to make a decision.”
Givony seems skeptical the Washingtons will find what they’re looking for, but he did offer a glimmer of hope.
“There’s not a lot of power forwards in this draft, especially when you get outside the lottery [top 14 picks],” he said. “Most of the bigs are in the lottery and then there’s like Mo Wagner [Michigan], Jontay Porter [Missouri] and Chimezie Metu [Southern Cal]. It starts to thin out pretty quick. So it really comes down to his priorities and how much does he like school and where is he academically.
“There’s so many factors we don’t know, but it’s going to figure itself out here in the next two weeks.”
Washington and Kentucky teammates Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel, who also have declared for the draft but not hired agents, have until May 30 to decide whether they want to stay in or return to school for another season.