By LARRY VAUGHT
Who is the best player on John Calipari’s team?
Is it freshman Keldon Johnson, who plays with a tenacity no one else on the team does and can contribute in a variety of ways?
Is it senior Reid Travis, who has already shown he’s the most dependable player on a game-by-game basis when it comes to rebounding and scoring?
What about PJ Washington, the sophomore Calipari says can be a bully in the lane with his physical play?
Or could it be someone else?
I asked former UK All-American Mike Pratt who he thought Kentucky’s best player was. Not only does he watch every game since he’s the analyst for the UK Radio Network, but he also has access at times to practice.
“Everybody wants to see who can be the best. Some guys have stood out but one thing I want to see this team develop is a couple of go-to guys,” Pratt said. “Somebody you can put ball in his hands and he will make a play no matter what. A couple of guys right now stand out consistently — Keldon and Reid.
“Actually, there’s a lot of potential for go-to guys or best players. But to me, right now there are no stars, just guys trying to hit their stride.”
Associate coach Kenny Payne was remarkably candid in his assessment of who might be the most important player last week. He said he believes Washington “understands” more about all facets of the game than other Cats.
“I think he’s capable of being our best defender or one of our best defenders. I think he’s the type of player that when he’s at his best our team is like really good,” Payne said.
That just got him started.
“Personally, not coaching, staff-wise, personally, I think when we play great or we lose, I hate to say it to you guys in the media, I look at him. When our team energy isn’t right, I look at him,” Payne said. “When our rebounding ain’t great, I look at him.
“When we’re not playing great offensively or defensively, I look at him. When the game is tight, what has PJ Washington done? Is he in foul trouble? Is he playing with energy? That’s just me.”
Washington is averaging 12.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game this season while shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 63 percent at the foul line going into Saturday’s game against Seton Hall. He’s also made seven of 12 3-point tries, a 58.3 percent mark compared to the 23.8 percent he shot last year from long range.
Last season he averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 60 percent at the foul line.
Payne hears what others sometimes say about Washington and doesn’t think it is right or fair.
“I think there’s a, ‘He’s a good, solid college player and that’s good enough.’ That’s not good enough. Not for this program. Not for who and what his talent is,” Payne said. “I would challenge PJ Washington to max out, to give us 110 percent not just 100.
“It’s easy for PJ to give 85, 80 percent and be a good player. He will not reach what he’s trying to attain by giving 85 percent. He has to give 110 percent, and then if he does, again, I don’t like to put it on one player, but this team becomes dominant.”
Case closed. I respect Payne. He doesn’t get a chance to talk to the media often, but when he does he’s always very insightful. He also knows talent and understands how to push players to make a team better.
Washington is not one to hide the from spotlight, and he knew what a big spotlight there was on Kentucky players way before he got to UK>
“There’s nothing like Kentucky basketball. When you come in in front of all these fans, it’s hard to be yourself and just come out and be comfortable in your own skin,” Washington said.
He understands the energy that Payne — and Calipari — want from him, especially on defense.
“I just can’t afford to do that on the defensive end and put my team in jeopardy,” Washington said.
I think sometimes Washington’s demeanor makes others believe he’s not going all out when he is. Sometimes he has an effortless-looking style about him because he’s patient and does understand what it takes to win. And never doubt that winning is what matters most to him.
That’s why he has no problem with Calipari pushing him and expecting more no matter what he does.
“He just wants more rebounds, more blocked shots. He needs me to be more aggressive, and I feel like I need to bring a lot more energy,” Washington said. “He says that I lack energy sometimes during the games, which is why I need to bring it more often.”