As expected, PJ Washington was the first Kentucky player selected in the NBA Draft on Thursday night at the Barkley’s Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Washington was taken as the No. 12 overall selection by the Charlotte Hornets. In somewhat of a surprise, Washington’s teammate Tyler Herro was selected next at No. 13 by the Miami Heat.
Washington declared for the NBA Draft a year ago, but opted to return for a second season and the decision paid off for the sophomore forward nearly a year later.
“It (coming back) helped a lot,” he said. “Without (coming back), I wouldn’t have been a first-round pick. I credit coach (John Calipari) for having me back and helping me get here. I feel like (I have evolved) everywhere, really. Cal has been pushing me each and every day, so I pretty much thank him a lot.”
Washington’s parents, Paul Washington Sr. and Sherry Washington, played collegiate basketball at Middle Tennessee University. Washington credited his mom for helping him develop his game.
“She’s a better player than him, she shoots better than him, for sure,” Washington said with a laugh.
Jay Bilas, an analyst for ESPN and former standout at Duke, said Washington will be a successful player in the professional ranks, largely because of his improvement on both ends of the court at Kentucky last season.
“I don’t think there’s a player I can think of, at least in this draft, who benefitted more from coming back for another year of college than PJ Washington did,” Bilas said. “He was a totally different player this year for Kentucky. He’s very athletic and skilled. He really improved his shooting. He can post up, step away, an improved rebounder and an improved defender and he has a good jump hook when he gets into the middle off the lane.
“He really became a go-to scorer (for Kentucky). I like the fact that he really improved his defense as well. He’s just a solid, good basketball player and will make a solid pro in the NBA.”
Herro also was a lottery pick and is known for his shooting and energy on the court.
“He can really shoot it (and) one of the best shooters in the draft,” Bilas said. “He shot 95 percent from the free-throw line on the road. He can attack a close out and he’s a good cutter. He also has a good middle game, pull-up (shot), good floater, but he’s tough. He’s a competitor and I thought he made strides defensively (last year).”
Herro was humbled by the selection.
“It’s just a dream come true and I can’t believe that I’m standing here wearing a Miami Heat hat on, walking across the stage,” he said. “It’s a true blessing. Not too many kids make it (to the NBA) where I am from and I’m just happy I’m here.”
Keldon Johnson was the 29th selection by the San Antonio Spurs and one of the last selections of the opening round.
Bilas said Johnson is a competitor and will succeed in the NBA.
“He’s an attacker,” Bilas said. “He’s a really solid player who is tough and physical at the wing position. He will dive on the floor and he can finish above the rim. He’s not a spectacular athlete, but a good one, He really improved his shooting throughout the course of the year. He improved his release and it was much quicker. His shot preparation was much better throughout the course of the year. He’s a good defender and a very good defensive rebounder. … A good, solid pick for San Antonio (near) the end of the first round.”
Johnson said he plans to continue to get better at the next level.
“I’m ready to get down and grind,” he said. “I’m just going to keep up and play hard, be myself. I’m firm believer in that. I know who I am and I’m comfortable with who I am and I know that every day I’m going to come in and work and bring energy to the game. I’m going to keep working. It’s only the beginning (and) I'm blessed to be in the NBA."
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.