LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — PJ Washington flashed a wide, sly grin when asked about plans to make his second season at Kentucky better than the first.
It spoke volumes about his confidence before he said a word.
But the 6-foot-8 forward does plan to be more vocal. He returns to school as the top scorer and rebounder for the Wildcats. Washington also wants to prove he can defend all positions, perhaps the most important advice he received last spring from NBA scouts while testing the draft waters.
An injured left pinkie that bothered Washington last season has healed following offseason surgery. Fully healthy, his focus now is applying lessons learned from a busy summer to a team that will look to him for leadership.
“I just came back to get better, honestly,” Washington said Thursday at Kentucky’s media day. “I knew my role was going to be bigger, so I just came back to just try to be a leader and I feel like I’m doing a great job right now.”
One of a handful of Wildcats who entered the NBA draft after last season, Washington’s decision after the combine to return for his sophomore season was significant for coach John Calipari’s squad. Washington’s 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a freshman provide a good base for Kentucky, which returns 32 percent of its offense from the 26-11 squad that reached the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
Though Calipari would welcome improved numbers, he’d also like more consistency from Washington. The coach used a golf swing analogy, attributing successful tee shots to having the same motion. Scouts liked what they saw from his game in general, but noted that he needs to make it a habit on both ends of the floor.
“Here’s what they loved,” Calipari said of Washington. “They loved his body. They loved his motion and movement. They loved his competitive spirit. Now they’re saying he’s got to get more consistent skill-wise. There’s one way to do that, and that’s getting in the gym.”
The Dallas native has needed no motivation there. After being a spectator for part of the summer while recovering from surgery, he has thrown himself into training and added muscle to 228-pound frame.
As for that troublesome pinkie, Washington said it was bent at an awkward angle and painful — but now he’s good to go. While he said it didn’t affect his shooting — his 52 percent accuracy was second on the team — he acknowledged the injury affected how he grabbed rebounds.
Washington showed no effects from the injury during Kentucky’s August tour in the Bahamas, where he averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 boards in four games.
“It’s straight now,” Washington said. “Definitely a lot better than what it was.”
Washington now looks forward to being a better rebounder, a daunting scenario for opponents considering Kentucky has a stacked frontcourt. Besides returning 6-11 Nick Richards (5.1 points, 4.4 rebounds), the Wildcats added 6-8 fifth-year senior Reid Travis from Stanford and 6-10 freshman EJ Montgomery.
For Washington, it is all starting on the defensive end. He’s not only embracing that challenge, but enjoying it.
“He’s more confident, more relaxed on the court,” Richards said. “He’s got a lot to do, playing 1 through 5 defensively on the court. He’s the vocal leader on the team and gets on everybody when they’re not doing something they’re supposed to be doing. He was like that last year, but he’s doing more of it this year.”
Washington’s goal remains playing in the NBA, but he doesn’t regret returning to Kentucky. After his freshman year was a blur in many areas, he’s making sure to savor every minute of college life and especially basketball.
On-court minutes are definitely there as Calipari seeks a catalyst, a role Washington is eager to fulfill after a summer of learning.
“The Bahamas helped me play my game on a different level,” he said. “It helped me showing energy on both ends of the floor and being able to step out on the perimeter.
“I feel like I did a better job than last year and I’m going to try to continue to build off that.”
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Gary B. Graves on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GaryBGraves