With UK basketball’s regular season nearly over, we can now start discussing one of SEC’s top individual awards.
Who is going to be the 2019 SEC Player of the Year?
Tennessee’s 6-7 junior star Grant Williams, who captured SEC Player of the Year honors last year, is attempting to make history by becoming the 10th player to win SEC Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons. The other nine SEC Player of the Year honorees include UK’s Kenny Walker during the mid-1980s, LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal, UT’s Bernard KIng (who actually won it three consecutive years – twice by Associated Press and once by United Press International), among others.
But Williams, who is also having a very good year, may not get the honor this time. How about Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington? I like Washington. He would be my choice for this season’s SEC Player of the Year. The 6-8, 228-pound forward from Findlay Prep in Dallas is also a leading candidate for the national Player of the Year honors.
UK coach John Calipari is proud of Washington, who declared for the NBA Draft last spring and went through the process before returning for his second year at Kentucky. Coach Cal says the biggest thing about Washington’s remarkable improvement over last year has been conditioning.
“What makes me happy is when I'm hearing people call me and say, ‘Cal, he's the most improved guy in the country,’ “ added Calipari of Washington. “And a big part of that was conditioning and toughness and focus.
“He’s in great, great condition. And he’s playing like the best player in the country right now. He really is.”
Calipari commented, “His life just changed now because he decided to come back, when other kids all left. He made a choice for him. Kind of like what (former UK star) Willie Cauley-Stein did; I'm coming back, because I need to come back.”
In last Saturday’s 80-53 win over Auburn, Washington hit a career-high five three-pointers for a game-high 24 points. By the way, he interestingly made only five three-pointers last season.
“Last year, I wouldn’t even really shoot 3s honestly,” said Washington moments after his team’s dominating 27-point win over the Tigers. “Last year I was just trying to bully people, get to the rim and make layups; and this year I feel like my game has expanded a lot more. They were denying me in the post and I was just hitting shots today and just kept shooting. They were going in and fortunately we won the game tonight.”
Going into Tuesday night’s matchup with Arkansas, Washington is leading the team in scoring (15.2-point average), rebounding (7.9 rebounds) and three-point field goal shooting (46.2 percent). He also is ranked No. 4 among the SEC’s top rebounders. Washington has led the Wildcats in scoring in six straight games.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl has high praise for Washington, a preseason All-SEC first team selection by the league’s media.
“PJ Washington was a teammate of (Auburn’s) Horace Spencer’s back at Findlay (Prep), so I’ve seen him for a long, long time. He is absolutely a player of the year candidate nationally,” said Pearl before last Saturday’s game. “He’s playing up to his capabilities. I’m very happy for him and I’m very proud of him. I’ve seen him develop and work, but this is how he’s supposed to play when he came to Kentucky.”
UK associate head coach Kenny Payne is very pleased with Washington’s transformation.
“So proud of PJ and what he’s done,” said Payne. “Love the way that he’s approaching the game. And you’re right, Coach (Calipari) has been really focused on him playing to a certain standard. So as the world is giving him all this praise, Coach Cal is saying, ‘I need more.’ That’s what this is about and you see it in his play.”
Said Calipari, “He’s learning to play a full game.”
If Washington wins SEC Player of the Year honors, he would become the fifth UK player during the 10-year Calipari era to do so, joining John Wall (2010), Anthony Davis (2012), Tyler Ulis (2016) and Malik Monk (2017).
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.