By LARRY VAUGHT
If ESPN analyst Jay Bilas is right, PJ Washington is going to be the first Kentucky player picked in Thursday’s NBA Draft.
He has Washington ranked 13th on his list of players going into the draft — ahead of both Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson. All three UK players have been invited to attend the draft by NBA officials.
“Not that I’m saying that’s where he’ll be drafted, but that’s where I have him on my list of prospects, irrespective of what teams think of him. He’s a 6-9 forward that can step away and knock down a perimeter shot. He’s a good athlete. Solid, a solid prospect,” said Bilas during a NBA Draft conference call with national media members Monday.
Washington averaged 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 29.3 minutes per game for UK last year as a sophomore. He shot 52.2 percent overall from the field and 42.3 percent (33 of 78) from 3-point range. He also was a 66.3 percent shooter at the foul line. He had 63 assists, 43 blocks and 29 steals. He led the team in scoring, rebounding and 3-point percentage. He was second in blocked shots and overall field goal percentage.
Bilas, who will be part of ESPN’s draft coverage for the 17th straight year, expects Washington to be a good NBA player for a “long time” from all he’s seen.
“He’s just solid. With his athletic profile, the fact that he’s very skilled, do I see him being a star in the NBA, an All-Star? Probably not,” Bilas said. “Do I see him being a starter in the league? I do. I think he’s got the opportunity to play for a long, long time.”
Washington contemplated putting his name into the draft after his freshman year before deciding to return to UK where he improved his shooting and consistency.
“I think he certainly helped himself (coming back). It doesn’t mean that’s the only way. He certainly is going to be drafted higher this year than he would have been last year. Coming back and working on his game, being a more finished product I think was immensely helpful to improving his draft position,” Bilas said.
“Now, had he gone pro last year out of college, after just one year at Kentucky, could things have worked out just as well if not better? Of course. There’s no rule book or road map for this.”
However, Washington went from a likely high second round pick in 2018 to a very possible lottery pick this week.
“If you’re looking at it just from improving draft stock, absolutely he improved his draft stock by coming back. I think he is a better player, more prepared to step into the NBA and be productive right away. He still has a lot of improving to do and I think is going to be a good player in the NBA,” Bilas said.
“He became far more consistent. You could tell that he was more assertive, confident, impacted the game in far more ways than he did as a freshman. PJ is a good passer, has a good understanding of the game. He showed that he could step out and knock a perimeter shot down. He could go into the post and be a go-to scorer with his back to the basket.
“I think he improved his body, did a much better job of running the floor. He was much better as a defender, rebounding, protecting the rim, things of that nature. He improved in every conceivable way I think and became more of a leader. You could tell just by the way he carried himself, much more confident as a player.”
Bilas again emphasized there is no right or wrong time for a player to turn professional depending on his goals and perspective. However, he says it is easy to see the value in Washington staying at Kentucky for a second season.
“You certainly can’t argue with his decision, that he did everything right,” Bilas said.