COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — P.J. Washington did not stand out on Day 1 of USA Basketball’s under-19 World Cup team tryouts. Then, “I talked to him a little bit,” coach John Calipari said.
The message: stop playing like a traditional power forward, step out from the basket and, most of all, attack. The next day, on consecutive possessions of a scrimmage against some of the top young players in America, Washington obliged, catching the ball at the top of the key, driving and finishing — the second time with a tomahawk dunk.
And he was off and running. The next two days of practice, which earned him one of 18 finalist spots on what will become Calipari’s 12-man Team USA, brought an impressive display of Washington’s full arsenal: a driving, pull-up floater; a driving, pull-up jumper; a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer, a wrap-around pass to a teammate cutting to the bucket.
Swish, swish, swish, slam. Washington, mind you, is a 6-foot-8 incoming college freshman with a 7-foot-3 wingspan.
“You think about how we play and the game, where it’s going: positionless,” said Calipari, who will soon be coaching Washington at Kentucky, reciting his favorite buzzword of the last two-plus years. “Play basketball, take somebody on the bounce, get in the lane. Don’t short-dribble and spin; it doesn’t work. Might work in high school, but it doesn’t work in college. You gotta get by people, shoot jump shots, go play.”
P.J. Washington has picked it up big-time the last two days. pic.twitter.com/QJRiOUR99A
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 21, 2017
To that end, Calipari has a dream team coming together in Lexington this summer. His roster is stocked with long, tall, versatile athletes who can play (and defend) multiple positions. Kevin Knox, another star of Team USA tryouts, is the best-known example, but Washington has been something of a revelation in Colorado this week.
His reputation is that of a rugged rebounder — maybe the best in the entire Class of 2017 — and it is well-earned. It’s obvious now, however, that Washington has much more in his bag of tricks.
“People are sleeping on me,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think too many people thought I had that in my game, but I just wanted to come out and show them that I can do multiple things. I feel like this year with Coach Cal is going to be good because he’s going to push me to do things and get out on the wing.
“It’s great, because he has a lot of confidence in his guys. All of us are positionless players — everybody can pretty much do everything — and being able to play with guys like that every day in practice is great.”
Just your typical 6-8 power forward, P.J. Washington. pic.twitter.com/7Sse7HnNmS
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 20, 2017
One of Calipari’s USA Basketball assistants is former Kansas star and No. 1 NBA draft pick Danny Manning, who is now the head coach at Wake Forest. Calipari calls him the original positionless player, a 6-foot-10 power forward with the skills of a guard.
Manning is working with Team USA’s big men this week, and he’s impressed with Washington.
“Extremely versatile, very good skillset, handles the ball well, passes it well, has a good feel and understanding of the game,” Manning said. “I think he’s someone who can do a lot of different things, especially in this offense … and (has) a willingness to go in and do whatever it takes to help his team be successful.”
Nice feed from P.J. Washington. Theme for UK's forwards: real skilled. pic.twitter.com/lEZLWpa9sL
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 19, 2017
Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo, who passed up the chance to potentially become a first-round pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft, is also in camp this week. He and Knox, a top-10 recruit nationally and projected lottery pick next year, have garnered more attention to this point.
But after three days watching the three Wildcats here at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, Mike DeCourcy, Hall of Fame basketball writer for Sporting News, came away raving about Washington.
“P.J. impressed me the most in terms of his readiness to play right now with what (the Wildcats) need him to do at the position they need him to fill,” DeCourcy said. “He was the most ready to make an impact. He knows exactly what he is and exactly how to help his team. He plays hard, he drives the ball, he’s aggressive. I really like him.”
P.J. Washington not far behind Diallo for best player on the court tonight. And-one. pic.twitter.com/OdraLC45E7
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 22, 2017
Washington’s back tightened up before Wednesday morning’s practice, and he was expected to miss both of that day’s workouts — which would’ve hurt his chances to make the final 12-man roster and travel to Egypt next week for the FIBA World Cup — but he made an emphatic return for the evening scrimmage.
Washington went for 10 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in a short scrimmage, flashing again his wide range of skills. Whether he stays with Team USA (the final roster will be announced Thursday afternoon) or not, he’s hardly finished opening eyes on a national stage.
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