Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops will break down more than 70 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
This report focuses on Kentucky’s PJ Washington.
PJ Washington’s appeal in the modern NBA is plain to see while watching the playoffs over the last few years. Forwards with more strength and heft to their physical profile have quickly transformed from “tweeners” to the perfect versatile defensive piece for contending teams. Washington’s 6’8, 230-pound frame and 7’2 wingspan will give him the physical tools to be a defender across all three traditional frontcourt positions and his passing and burgeoning shooting on the other end gives him significant offensive punch. Projected as a mid-first-round pick, he should have a long career as a role player on contending teams, though his lack of upside will be what keeps him from skyrocketing into the higher parts of the lottery.
Defense should be Washington’s calling card at the NBA level, though his motor and overall effort level will have to increase on that end to fully unlock his potential. He’s mobile for his size and should be a strong switch candidate in most defensive schemes. He’s not going to stick to guards step-for-step, but his length should make up for most advantages those players create against him. He’ll be able to guard pretty much anybody at the 3, 4, or 5, though the largest 5s will certainly give him issues. The value is in his versatility; he’s not necessarily a stopper at any individual position, but his physical profile will give him the chance to be an above average defender at three positions, which can be just as valuable in the right scheme.
There will be issues with Washington playing the 5 in very small units. Those lineups will run opponents out of the gym, but if the game slows down, he’ll struggle to keep up physically, which can manifest itself on the glass. For as versatile as he could be, he doesn’t have the do-a-bit-of-everything mentality at this point, which will really hurt his team if they’re playing him at the center spot. Small ball 5s with Washington’s size have to make up for their physical disadvantages with unreal effort, toughness, and basketball IQ; it’s not clear whether Washington possesses those traits.
Offensively, Washington flashed more upside than most players of his archetype. He improved dramatically from his freshman to sophomore years at Kentucky, becoming a focal point of the Wildcats’ offense. His usage increased five points from his freshman season and he became more efficient from everywhere on the court, posting an elite 60 percent true shooting in conference play. He knocked down 45 percent of his threes, though the volume wasn’t necessarily outstanding and his free throw numbers indicate that the great percentage might have been a bit of an anomaly.
He became a passing hub in Kentucky’s offense, operating from the elbows with cutters and shooters working off dribble handoffs and backdoor cuts. He has good vision from these spots and knows where his teammates are supposed to be, to the point that he’ll sometimes fire a pass somewhat blindly to a corner shooter when no corner shooter is present. Most of the time, it’s the right pass, he just was one step ahead of his college teammates in this regard. In the NBA, that shooter will be in the right spot and Washington’s aggressive passing will be an asset.
The passing he’s shown as a stationary elbow operator may extend to the short roll in pick-and-roll, if he’s paired with a primary playmaker capable of drawing hard traps in ball screen action. It’s easy to see him catching at the free throw line and making the right decision most of the time, whether that’s to take a layup or short floater himself or find the open man as the defense rotates toward him.
He did struggle mightily with turnovers in both years at Kentucky. Those pinpoint passes will go awry from time to time and his audaciousness leads to some really easy pickoffs for opponents. His non-passing turnovers aren’t much better; he doesn’t have a tight enough handle to attack the basket through traffic and gets stripped too easily, even when he has the ball tucked into his chest like a running back. He has good passing vision and a good general sense of where his teammates are (or should be), but those same instincts don’t always extend to the other five players on the floor. Defenders can sneak up on him and poke the ball out from behind or pop up in places he’s not expecting for easy steals.
Finishing at the basket will be an issue for Washington at the NBA level. He didn’t go through vertical leap testing at the Combine, but the tape indicates that he’ll mostly be a below-the-rim finisher who will have to use his advanced footwork and touch with both hands to sneak the ball around opponents. If the jumper is real and he can be an above average three-point and midrange shooter, then it won’t matter as much, but his individual offense could suffer if the shooting doesn’t come along.
Washington has a lot of good tools in his toolbox, from a strong physical profile to quick feet on the perimeter to above average passing ability for a player of his ilk, but some of the negatives could catch up with him against heightened competition. He totaled just five assists against 11 turnovers in four games across the SEC conference tournament and the NCAA tournament, which gives some pause to those who think he can step in and be a playmaker from the jump. His effort and focus defensively will have to improve for him to unleash all of his versatility on that end of the floor. For a team with a good culture of defensive accountability, he could be a starting-level power forward in the near future.