LEXINGTON, Ky. — P.J. Washington is so unusual it prompts Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari to provide an anatomy lesson.
“Your arms are supposed to be the same as your height,” Calipari said, referring to wingspan. “Now, most of you in here, you have short arms. You [can’t even] reach in your pockets. Like alligators, you just can’t reach for anything. But P.J.’s are plus-eight inches. It is so ridiculous.”
Washington, a freshman and former McDonald’s All-American, is a bit short for a power forward: 6 feet, 7 inches. But he has a 7-foot-3 wingspan. Ridiculous indeed. Thanks to that and a similarly absurd 43-inch vertical leap, Washington is a problem in the paint.
“Around the goal,” Calipari said, “it’s a basket. But we’ve got to prepare him for more than that: running the floor, being the initiator, if he rebounds it, bring it up and be the point guard.”
The what? That’s right, the muscled-up, 234-pound point guard with arms as long as an NBA center. Remember, the catch phrase at Kentucky these days is “positionless.” To that end, Calipari actually let Washington bring the ball up some for Team USA during the under-19 FIBA World Cup this summer.
“You could definitely see he was just trying to see what we could do on the court, how he wanted to use us this year,” Washington said of that trip, when he and Wildcats shooting guard Hamidou Diallo started all seven games and small forward Kevin Knox was with the team for a few days of camp before getting injured. “He didn’t know I can pass the ball, and he was surprised how good I pass it.”
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Washington averaged 27.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per 40 minutes for Team USA. He shot 58.9 percent from 2-point range … but only 48.8 percent from the free-throw line. That was apparently nipped in the bud right away.
“He was awful,” Calipari said of the free throws. “I told him, ‘This is good you are getting this out now, because you know you can’t be in the game late if this is who you are.’ But there is no reason for him to be a bad free-throw shooter. I think [Washington and Diallo, who also struggled at the line] are both tough enough that late in games they’ll make shots.”
Washington said he’d never gone so cold before and it has not been a problem since.
“I guess I just leaned back a little bit too much,” he said, “but I’m better now.”
There is not much else to nitpick in Washington’s game. He was widely considered one of the best rebounders in the 2017 recruiting class — yet he doesn’t consider that his calling card. When you have Go Go Gadget arms and can jump out of the gym, it just seems to come naturally.
“Honestly, I’ve never really tried to focus on rebound. I just went out and played,” Washington said. “I’ve never focused on, like, getting 10 rebounds a game. But I feel like if I put my mind to it, I can do anything, and I feel like I can be a great glass cleaner this year.”
Make no mistake, his success is about much more than raw, freakish physical attributes. It is also very much — perhaps most — about attitude. Calipari named Washington as one of Kentucky’s three alpha-dog-type personalities.
ESPN analyst and former college coach Seth Greenberg, after watching the Wildcats practice a few times this summer, told SEC Country that Washington plays harder than anyone on the team.
“He just attacks in the open court and he’s got a strength and a toughness about him,” Greenberg said. “He reminds me a lot of Cal’s old players when he was at UMass and Memphis. He’s just got a hardness about him — a hard outer shell. Shoots it a little bit better than I thought. He’s a relentless player.”
Versatile, too, like all of the other 5-star forwards on this roster: Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, Weneyn Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones. Calipari plans to mix and match them, sometimes throw three or four of them at an opponent at the same time, and overwhelm with length.
“If you rebound it, you’re the point guard. Go, and everybody fly,” Calipari said. “But the other side of it is that [Washington’s] strength around that basket, rebounding the ball and coming up with balls, he’s good. He’s good.”
So don’t be surprised to see Washington on the wing, but also as a small-ball center for Kentucky occasionally this season. Opposing big men might think they have a huge height advantage on him — until he stretches out those arms, throws his weight into them and springs up off the floor.
“We are all similar in some ways, but we’re all unique in different ways,” Washington said of the Cats’ collection of forwards. “We all can do different things and I feel like we’re versatile enough to all play at the same time, honestly. And I feel like we’re going to be great this year.”
More 2017-18 Kentucky previews
- How football got 5-star Kevin Knox to Kentucky
- Freshman PG Quade Green already leading young Cats
- Teammates: Hamidou Diallo can dominate … if he wants to
- Wenyen Gabriel is a fighter, and UK needs him to be
- What the Wildcats will miss while Jarred Vanderbilt is out
- John Calipari sees 2014 Cats, good and bad, in this team
- Full 6,500-word Calipari preseason Q&A
- Players vote on Cats’ best dunker and best shooter