LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari just threw it out there real casual-like during the TV broadcast of Kentucky basketball’s blowout win over Monmouth on Saturday: Freshman PJ Washington recently lost 15 pounds in 17 days, the coach said, which accounts a great deal for his huge afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Wait, what? That seems like a lot of weight in a short amount of time, no? Not when you have the metabolism of a freakishly athletic teenager and an assistant coach, Kenny Payne, who specializes in fast-forwarded development of young post players.
“Individual players have got to improve before your team can get better,” Calipari said after Washington went off for a career-high 20 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks. “So PJ lost that weight, and all of a sudden, he didn’t even look like the same guy. I wasn’t sure it would be this game, but he had practiced this way.”
Washington, a 6-foot-7 former McDonald’s All-American with a 7-3 wingspan and 43-inch vertical leap, had gotten off to a somewhat disappointing start at Kentucky: 5 points or fewer in four of his first eight games. He was shooting 46 percent at the free-throw line. Despite a lot of preseason hype about being “positionless,” he had made zero 3-pointers.
Then came Saturday, when he buried his first college 3, sank 9-of-9 free throws and pretty well dominated on both ends of the floor. Was it really as simple as losing 15 pounds in 17 days? And how the heck did he do that?
“Running,” Washington said with a grin. “Just running every day. Before practice, after practice, everything. [Losing the weight] is just a confidence booster. I feel like I’m more in shape, and my shots are falling now, and I’m just playing better.”
Almost three weeks ago now, Calipari asked Payne to start putting Washington through grueling workouts in addition to practices. Calipari did not ask Washington if he wanted to attend. He ordered.
“The kid wasn’t happy,” the coach said. “He was whining and complaining — and all of a sudden, it starts kicking in. There’s only one way if you’re chasing greatness to convince yourself that you’re good enough, and that’s through work, spending more time than anybody, being more committed than anybody.
“In the case of PJ, it was a demand. It wasn’t an ask. But [Saturday’s game] was good stuff. I was happy for him.”
At long last, Washington showed off all of the skills that made coaches at Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and just about everywhere else salivate. When the Wildcats got into foul trouble Saturday, they went to a zone defense, and Washington played at the top of it, in the middle of it and on the wing.
He was everywhere. He looked … positionless.
“That’s who he is,” Calipari said. “But plus-15 pounds, he can’t be that. And I even said, ‘Maybe lose 7 or 8 more, maybe you’ll get even better.’ ”
If that happens, or even if Washington can just maintain what he displayed in New York, the outlook for this Kentucky team changes dramatically.