LEXINGTON, Ky. (WBKO) --- When PJ Washington decided to return to Kentucky a year ago, he cited a desire to become a more complete player and help the Wildcats compete for a championship.
Although the Wildcats fell a game short of their first Final Four since 2015, Washington fulfilled the goals he set out for in his sophomore season as he emerged as one of the best players in college basketball in helping Kentucky become a national title contender.
With his work complete at UK, Washington will now pursue a lifelong goal: to play in the NBA. Washington will submit his name for the 2019 NBA Draft and plans to remain among the potential draftees.
“It’s been a little over a week since our season ended but it still hasn’t hit me that I’ve played my last game with Kentucky across my chest,” Washington said. “This place has been my home for two years and it’s hard for me to put in words how much I’ve grown in my time at Kentucky. The staff challenged me from day one to become the best version of myself and to work hard to become one of the best players in college basketball. I feel like I’ve done that.
“When I decided to come back to school a year ago, I knew there were things I still wanted to accomplish so I challenged myself to become a better all-around player, to develop more consistency and to become a leader for this team. Although we fell a couple games short of our ultimate goal, I’ll never forget the season we had with my brothers. We did some special things this season and made memories that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
“I want to thank God, Coach Cal and the staff with challenging me to become the player that I am. They believed in my potential and never accepted anything less than my best. Thank you helping me grow into a man that’s ready for this next step. To my teammates: Wow, we have been through so much. Thank you for putting your trust in me and for inspiring me through every workout, practice and game. I’ll never forget this group. And to everyone at UK: Thank you for your support and for helping a kid from Dallas see his dreams come true.”
Washington will end his career with 932 points, 475 rebounds 120 assists and 74 blocks, but his legacy will stretch far beyond his numbers or accolades. He racked up numerous All-American honors, including NCAA Consensus All-America Third Team selection, as he put the NBA on hold for a season to become a more complete player.
“I’m so proud of PJ and what he’s accomplished over the last two seasons,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “When he was in this position last year, he had to determine what was best for him. He looked at this and said, I want to come back and work on my game, to be coached, to become one of the best players in the game and to help us be one of those teams in the mix. And I told him, do not come back to school unless you’re going to drag your teammates with you. And boy did he ever.
“PJ transformed everything about his game. He became a national player of the year candidate, he showed his full set of his skills and he improved his stock while helping us become one of the best teams in the country. What I’m most proud of is how PJ developed into a leader. Every kid is on their own timetable, and the one that PJ followed – which was the best path for him – has put him in a position to do some special things at the next level. I can’t wait to watch his continued growth.”
Washington evolved into one of the nation’s most dominant players in his sophomore campaign. He produced career highs in virtually every statistical category in 2018-19, including leading the Wildcats in scoring (15.2 points per game), rebounding (7.5 rpg) and double-doubles (nine).
He was an absolute force in the second half of the season as he scored in double figures in 19 of his final 20 games and 25 overall. He suffered a sprained left foot in the second half of the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals against Tennessee on March 16 and did not play in UK’s opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but he returned to lead the Wildcats to their seventh Elite Eight appearance in 10 seasons under Calipari the following week.
Washington played 26 minutes and scored 16 points against Houston in the Sweet 16. He then gutted out 37 minutes and charted his ninth double-double of the season in an overtime loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight. Washington had 28 points, one shy of his career high, 13 boards, three assists, two blocks and two steals. He was named to the Midwest Regional All-Tournament Team for his efforts.
During his final 20-game stretch, he shot 53.1 percent from the floor and 46.2 percent from 3-point range. That span also included three straight double-doubles vs. then-No. 9/10 Kansas, at Vanderbilt and at Florida.
For the season, Washington shot 52.2 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from 3-point range. A year after hitting just five 3s in 37 games at a 23.8-percent rate, he drained 33 this season.
Perhaps the truest indicator of Washington’s worth this season was his impressive play vs. Kentucky’s best competition. In the 11 games he played vs. Associated Press Top 25 teams, Washington averaged a team-high 17.2 points and added 6.8 rebounds while shooting 54.8 percent.
Washington was well-recognized for his accomplishments. He was tabbed a third-team All-America selection by the four NCAA-recognized All-America teams (Sporting News, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, National Association of Basketball Coaches and the AP), in addition to All-America honors from USA Today (Second Team), Sports Illustrated (Third Team) and the Basketball Times (Third Team).
He was also tabbed an All-SEC First Team pick, was one of five finalists for the Karl Malone Award, presented by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame to the top power forward in college basketball, appeared on the John R. Wooden Award national ballot, and was a Citizen Naismith Trophy semifinalist.