PJ Washington Returns to UK; Jarred Vanderbilt, Wenyen Gabriel Leaving for NBA Draft
LEXINGTON, Ky. – PJ Washington will be playing basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats in 2018-19, but his teammates, Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel, are leaving Lexington to remain for the NBA Draft.
After going through the draft process and declaring for the 2018 draft, Washington (pictured during a game against the Tennessee Vols) has decided to return to the UK men’s basketball team for his sophomore season.
“I want to thank everyone for their support during this process and allowing me to take my time for one of the most important decisions of my life,” Washington said. “The plan all along was to get all the information that was out there to make the best decision for me and my family. I’ve always had a list of goals that I want to accomplish in my life, and one of the most important ones is making it to the NBA. That hasn’t changed at all.
“But another one of my goals is to win a national championship in college, and that’s what I want to do next season at Kentucky. I believe with who we have coming back and who we have coming in that we can do that. I learned a lot during my freshman season and became a better player, but I think I’ve only scratched the surface. With everything I’ve learned, I want to lead this team and compete for a championship. I can’t wait to get back on campus and get this thing started again.”
Washington’s return bolsters what was already shaping up to be a loaded 2018-19 roster. Forward Nick Richards and guard Quade Green are expected to be back for their sophomore seasons. Jemarl Baker will be fully healthy and return to the lineup next year. Additionally, UK has another highly ranked recruiting class that includes Tyler Herro, Keldon Johsnon, EJ Montgomery, Zan Payne and Immanuel Quickley. UK can only comment on prospective student-athletes who have signed official paperwork with the university.
“This is what the NBA Draft rules are in place for,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “PJ was able to test the waters and get all the information that was available to him to make the best decision for him and his family. Whatever PJ decided we were going to support, but I’m really happy with the decision he’s come to because I really want to coach PJ for another season. I know how good of a player he is and think he showed it at times last season, but I’m looking forward to seeing him grow and build on it. What I love most about this decision is why PJ is doing it. He told me he wants to come back to be a leader, to grow and to drag his teammates with him as we try to do something special.”
Washington announced in April he was entering the NBA Draft, but because he didn’t hire an agent, he had until May 30 (10 days after the NBA Draft Combine) to make a final decision as to whether he wished to remain in the draft or return to Kentucky.
Washington will return to Kentucky as its leading scorer and rebounder after averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds during his freshman season. He was the third-leading scorer on the 2017-18 squad and led the team in total rebounds with 211 boards. He also added 31 blocks and 57 assists, both third most on the team, respectively. Twice Washington scored 20 or more, netting 20 vs. Monmouth on Dec. 9 and 22 vs. Mississippi State on Jan. 23.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism surrounding Washington’s return is the way he played at the end of the season. The 6-foot-7 forward scored in double figures in 11 of the final 12 games, including a double-double in UK’s finale vs. Kansas State. Washington recorded 18 points and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds vs. K-State for his team-high third double-double of the season. He pulled in at least five rebounds in all but one of those games as well.
During that 12-game stretch, Washington averaged 12.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 57.6 percent from the floor. UK went 9-3 during that run, including winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.
Washington shot 51.9 percent from the floor, scored in double figures in 23 games, and posted 15 or more points in 10 games. He appeared in all 37 games in 2017-18 and made 30 starts.
He’ll join a returning nucleus that features Green, Richards and Baker. Green averaged 9.3 points, 2.7 assists and made 41 3-point field goals, and Richards tallied 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds to go along with 33 blocks in his freshman campaign. Baker redshirted last season as he recovered from surgery on his knee, but he’s expected to add a significant shooting presence on the perimeter after making 94 treys in his senior season at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Menifee, California.
UK will welcome back 32.0 percent of its scoring and 30.5 percent of its rebounding from a season ago. That will mark Kentucky’s biggest return since the 2014-15 team that went 38-1 and advanced to the Final Four.
Meanwhile, hours ahead of the NCAA deadline to return to school, sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel has decided to remain in the 2018 NBA Draft, ending his collegiate career.
Gabriel will join teammates Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Jarred Vanderbilt in the June 21 draft, which will be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
“BBN, thank you for supporting me for the last two years and being patient with me through these last few weeks,” Gabriel said. “This process hasn’t been easy for me and it’s choosing between a lifelong dream and playing in front of a fan base that I’ve grown to love so much. Opportunities like these don’t come without the support and encouragement from my family, Coach Cal, the coaching staff, my teammates, and of course, the fans.
“I’ve enjoyed every moment of this journey at the University of Kentucky and I just want to thank everyone for who has supported me through both my ups and my downs. Lord knows this hasn’t been easy, but my time here has only better prepared me for what the future has for me.
“After receiving positive feedback, my dreams of becoming a professional basketball player are that much closer to reality. I believe that I’m ready to take that jump and will be keeping my name in the 2018 draft.”
Gabriel announced last month that he would enter the 2018 NBA Draft to get an evaluation and explore his professional options. Because he didn’t hire an agent, he had the option of returning to school if he announced by May 30. During that timeframe, Gabriel worked out for a handful of NBA teams.
Based on the information Gabriel received, he’s decided to stay in the draft.
“Big Blue Nation, we’ve shared some exciting memories together. From the first time I walked out for Big Blue Madness all the way to walking out of St. Louis as SEC champs, Kentucky will always be my home.”
Gabriel (pictured) made huge strides in his sophomore season and played a key part in UK's late-season run, which included the Wildcats' fourth straight SEC Tournament title.
“Wenyen’s game is where the league continues to trend towards,” Calipari said. “He’s a position-less big man who can shoot, guard multiple positions and is willing to do what it takes to win. Wenyen grew so much from his freshman season to his sophomore year. If he continues to make those same strides, he’s going to carve himself a role with a team. He and I have talked and he knows he’s going to have to work hard to get there, but I’m confident he can.”
Over the final eight games, Gabriel averaged 9.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 3-point field goals per game. The 6-foot-9 forward became UK's go-to 3-point threat down the stretch, making 56.7 percent of his shots from behind the arc over that eight games.
Included in that late-season run was an unforgettable performance in the SEC Tournament semifinals. Gabriel made all seven of his 3-point attempts en route to 23 points. The 7-for-7 performance set UK school records and SEC Tournament records for most 3-pointers made without a miss.
He also posted 16 points and 12 rebounds vs. Buffalo in the second round of the NCAA Tournament for his first double-double of the season to go along with three 3-pointers. Gabriel had two other such games with three or more 3-pointers in 2017-18.
For the season, Gabriel averaged 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds. He made 42 3-pointers, second most on the team, on 39.6-percent shooting from behind the arc. The native of Sudan blocked a team-best 40 shots, including four games with three or more blocks. He had four games with 10 or more rebounds.
Gabriel's freshman highlights included 23 points vs. LSU, career-high 16 rebounds vs. Auburn and three straight games in double figures in the nonconference season.
Also, as mentioned earlier, freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt will forego his remaining eligibility at UK and remain in the NBA Draft. He was the team's leader in rebounding average this past season.
“Being a professional basketball player has always been a dream of mine,” Vanderbilt said. “From the moment I first picked up a basketball when I was 4 years old, I knew it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. These past couple of weeks have been extremely difficult for me. With everything I went through this past season, I’ve had a lot to think about and what’s best for me and my future. Through it all, I’ve become a better man on and off the court.
“First off, I want to thank God for blessing me with this opportunity because without Him, none of this would be possible. I also want to thank all of the people in my life who have supported me throughout this entire process – from my family, to my teammates, to the coaches and UK staff, and most importantly the fans. The relationships I’ve built here will last a lifetime and I will cherish the memories I’ve made here forever.
“After going through the process, I was able to get some positive feedback that confirmed what I had hoped: that my time is now. It is going to be tough to leave this place, but I’ve decided to remain in the NBA Draft and pursue my dreams now.”
Using NCAA rules that allow players to “test the waters’ and go through the NBA Draft process, Vanderbilt received feedback from NBA teams but remained eligible because he didn’t hire an agent. Vanderbilt received an NBA Draft Combine invite but elected not to attend.
But after a strong – albeit shortened season – in which Vanderbilt showed his potential, athleticism and versatility, he elected Wednesday to remain in the draft.
“Although I didn’t get to play a complete season like I initially intended, I’m still thankful for the opportunity I had to put a Kentucky uniform on and play for my dream school," said Vanderbilt. “I am very grateful I was able to play in front of the greatest fans in the world. I want to thank you for giving me support as I went through this process. You guys supported me throughout the year as I went through my injury and welcomed me with open arms when I got back on the court. This place is very special to me because of you all. Thank you for helping make Kentucky a second home for me. Big Blue Nation, I’ll forever bleed blue with you guys.”
Calipari said, “Jarred had a difficult decision to make. I know he has been pulled in two different directions. On one hand he wants to show our fans what he can do in a full season and compete for a championship. I know he feels like he got that taken away from him this year. On the other hand, he’s seen how quickly this can be taken away. I completely understand and support his decision to get healthy and pursue his dreams now. As I said before, we’ve only seen a small part of his game because of the adversity he faced this season, but he’s got the motor and skill set that will serve him well at the next level.”
Vanderbilt was limited to 14 games in 2017-18 because of a left foot injury that sidelined him the first 17 games of the season and then a left leg injury that kept him out of the postseason. When Vanderbilt was on the floor, he was a problem for opposing teams.
Once cleared, he was thrown right into the mix at South Carolina and immediately showcased his ability to rebound and distribute the basketball. In addition to posting six points and five rebounds in 14 minutes, the 6-foot-9 forward took over “point forward” responsibilities in his first career game and dished out three assists.
Vanderbilt would go on to grab at least five rebounds in his first four games, including 11 key boards in the 17-point comeback victory at No. 7/7 West Virginia.
As Vanderbilt knocked off the rust and figured out his role with the team, his minutes went up. He flirted with a double-double (eight points, 10 rebounds) at Missouri and nearly had three straight double-doubles vs. Alabama (11 points, nine rebounds), at Arkansas (11 points, nine rebounds) and at home vs. Mizzou (11 points, career-high 15 boards). He was tabbed Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week after the first two of that three-game stretch.
Vanderbilt grabbed 10 or more rebounds in five of his last six games and led UK in rebounding average with 7.9 boards per game. He also averaged 5.9 points per game. As a senior at Victory Prep Academy, Vanderbilt averaged 28.5 points, 13.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists a game.
Since Calipari joined the Wildcat program for the 2009-10 season, UK has produced 31 NBA Draft picks over eight seasons, 14 more than the next closest school (Duke). Included in the 31 are 24 first-round selections, three No. 1 overall picks, 12 top-10 selections and 17 lottery picks.
Of the 21 players in the Calipari era who declared for the NBA Draft after one season at Kentucky heading into this season, all 21 were drafted in the first round.
Photos by Jamie H. Vaught