The Toronto Raptors are on the verge of beating the previously impenetrable Golden State Warriors, which should be enough to have all NBA fans on the edge of their seat, but there is plenty of other news for Wolves fans to sink their teeth into.
The headlines have been dominated by the front office and coaching staff undertaking a major facelift, with more moves to play out. However, the NBA draft is less than two weeks away and Minnesota is locked into the 11th pick barring any draft night moves.
Position: Power Forward
Draft Age: 20
Weight: 230 lbs
College Stats: 29.3 MPG, 15.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.2 BPG, 52.2% FG, 42.3% 3PT
Per-36 Minute Stats: 18.7 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 BPG, 59.2% TS
Statistics provided by Tankathon
- Inside-Out Scoring
As the draft madness gains traction, you will start to hear a lot of chatter about PJ Washington’s ability to score in a variety of ways. In an NBA landscape where power forwards need to stretch the floor as much (or more) as they need a bag of post moves, the 20-year-old fits the modern archetype like a hand in a glove.
During his second year in John Calipari’s famous Kentucky Wildcats system, Washington blossomed into a legitimate shooting threat. He connected on just five triples at a scant 23.8 percent (0.6 3PA per game) in his freshman season, but came back as a completely reformed shooter in year two and nailed a scorching 42.3 percent of his 2.2 attempts per game.
He isn’t a knockdown shooter off the dribble or coming off screens, but he has shown he can thrive as a pick-and-pop and spot-up target at the top of the arc.
Washington’s 66% clip from the free throw line and the increased pressure of NBA defenses will make it tough to replicate his 40+% 3-point mark when he hits the big leagues. Nonetheless, it will be surprising if he isn’t immediately a capable shooter with upside to grow into.
His shooting aptness is catered by his ability to bend defenses with his driving and post-up ability. The sophomore refuses to be pigeonholed as a shooter. He uses his impressive agility to burst out of screens in the pick-and-roll and punish defenders for poor closeouts. He is also an active and alert cutter when he is given the chance.
While he lacks a strong mid-range and face-up game, Washington maintains a well-rounded offensive game by having a set of go-to post moves that keep defenders honest. He has shown an ability to knock down hook shots with both hands and has enough lower body strength to shift off-kilter defenders out of the way and finish at the rim.
Standing at just 6-foot-8 he will probably struggle to really make an impact as a post scorer, especially in his first few years as he develops more strength and polishes his moves, but it’s encouraging to see him showing potential in that area throughout his Kentucky career.
If Washington is to really make the most of his potential, it will likely begin with his ability to score in an assortment of ways.
- Switchable and Willing Defender
Make no mistake, it’s highly unlikely PJ Washington will ever be an elite defender or even the best defender on his team. At the same time, he probably won’t be the worst or a player that actively hurts his team on that end.
The biggest reasons that he projects to be a handy piece on the defensive side of the ball is the fact he is willing and capable of switching and putting up a fight against most players. He is fairly quick laterally for a big man, and makes second and third efforts when he is required to do so.
He has the capacity to block shots and stifle players at the coalface, but it’s unlikely he will ever be an elite rim protector. He simply doesn’t have the length, agility, or timing. Instead, he defends smartly in the post and always walls up and gets a hand in a would-be scorers face.
Below is a nice example of how Washington can deter post scorers without playing above the rim. He slides his feet well to cut off LSU’s Naz Reid and force him to give the ball up to the corner shooter and, despite being losing the rebounding battle, gets into the body of his opponent and forces an airball on the second-chance attempt.
Another good example of his willingness to defend and help his team at any cost is how he runs back in transition or after a made bucket. He is never one to meander down the court, an awesome trait for any big. In the NBA lazy runners often get exposed in outlet situations, a good recipe for an angry coach and a spot on the bench.
As you can see here, he doesn’t settle for just watching the Vanderbilt fast break unfold. He chooses to get back quickly, form a roadblock, and make a heady steal.
The defensive chops Washington possesses are the kind that is easily translatable into NBA basketball. Obviously, he will need to continue to sharpen them, but it’s not a stretch to see him becoming a plus defender in time — even if it’s not the All-Defensive level that every team craves.
- Floating on Offense
Despite being a versatile scorer who can effect the box score in a number of ways, Washington does have the tendency to go missing at times.
Some of this can be attributed to the similar talent levels around him at Kentucky. He was always a danger of being overshadowed by talented scorers like Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, and Reid Travis. However, when he takes the leap to the next level he will constantly be surrounded with great scorers, so being able to stand out and continually make himself a threat will be vital.
Players like Andrew Wiggins have come under heavy scrutiny for floating on offense. While Washington doesn’t have the same level of concern that Wiggins does, mainly because of his willingness to cut when he is given a lane, it illustrates how quickly offensive potential can take a downfall if the energy levels aren’t up to scratch.
The clip above isn’t really a floating type scenario, but it is an example of where less than ideal energy and awareness can detract from an efficient offense. Washington is stationed on the right block with a pretty blatant mismatch to his advantage. Instead of using his size to get in front of his man or giving up and clearing the lane, he spends over 10 seconds sitting behind the defender before the ball is eventually turned over trying to reach him.
At times Washington seems a little bit lost on offense, despite possessing all the tools to be a dynamic scorer. He would be better served setting more screens and trying to free himself to be a dangerous pick-and-pop option more often. As with any player, some of this can also be attributed to the scheme he was playing in at Kentucky.
When he reaches the NBA, Washington will need to find ways to involve himself in the offense consistently, even when the defense is making life hard.
- Positional Versatility
It was mentioned in the ‘strengths’ section how Washington is able to switch effectively on defense, which is a promising sign, but that doesn’t mean he is able to consistently guard multiple positions. The fact is that at 6-foot-8 and without any advanced ball handling skills, the former Wildcat will be pegged into the power forward position for the foreseeable future.
It’s nitpicking to call it a weakness, as many great players have only been able to occupy a single position, but it’s still a downside in a league where positional versatility is such a tangible skill to possess.
Small ball lineups have become commonplace around the league over the last five years. The Golden State Warriors dynasty has thrived when switching Draymond Green into the center position and allowing shooters to surround him, and as with all great trends, the league as a whole have followed. Unfortunately, Washington seems unlikely to be able to fill a similar mold.
While it’s a disappointing situation, Washington’s shooting gives hope that he will be more than a lane-clogging power forward who isn’t able to play the five.
Fit With Minnesota
For what it’s worth, over the last two months of researching and writing about a multitude of Timberwolves draft prospects, Washington is the standout for me.
Not only does he fit a position of need with Taj Gibson and Anthony Tolliver likely to depart, but he brings a well-rounded game that will fit beautifully in the modern NBA. He can provide a solid mix of scoring and defense off the bench or slide in nicely next to Karl-Anthony Towns in the starting lineup.
His shooting is the key here. Minnesota have lacked 3-point shooting since the dawn of time and is desperate for efficient spot-up bombers to surround Towns with. There is an obvious cause for concerns with Washington’s free throw percentages and low triple attempts (2.2 per game), but it would be surprising if he isn’t knocking down at least 35 percent of his long-range shots from the get-go.
He may not have the defensive upside of a Brandon Clarke or the star potential of a Sekou Doumbouya, but Washington is a safe bet to be a reliable NBA player. With just 36 wins on the board last season, Minnesota need players who can make a steady impact straight away, with the capability to grow into something more.
PJ Washington is that man.