P.J. Washington's return eases blow of 2 NBA departures for Kentucky

The Dagger
Kentucky forward P. J. Washington (25) shoots a free throw against Vanderbilt in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Kentucky won 74-67. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Kentucky forward P. J. Washington (25) shoots a free throw against Vanderbilt in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Kentucky won 74-67. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

With the NBA draft decision deadline fast approaching, Kentucky’s roster for the 2018-19 is beginning to come into focus.

On Wednesday, three more Wildcats players — forwards P.J. Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel — announced their NBA decisions. Washington, a 6-foot-7 freshman, will return to Lexington, while Vanderbilt, a 6-foot-9 freshman, and Gabriel, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, will forego their remaining collegiate eligibility and remain in the draft.

All three players initially declared for the draft without signing with an agent, giving them the opportunity to explore the draft process without jeopardizing their college eligibility.

Washington emerged as one of Kentucky’s best players late last year

The return of Washington is a big deal and eases the blow of the departures of Gabriel and Vanderbilt. The former McDonald’s All-American averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a freshman, but really came on down the stretch in SEC and postseason play.

Over the team’s final 12 games, Washington scored in double figures 11 times, including five of six postseason games. He capped that off with an 18-point, 15-rebound performance in the Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State, albeit with a dreadful 8-of-20 showing at the foul line.

Washington participated in the NBA draft combine and was projected by most as a second round pick. In the end, he decided another college was right for him.

“The plan all along was to get all the information that was out there to make the best decision for me and my family,” Washington said in a news release. “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.”

Gabriel and Vanderbilt are the fourth and fifth UK players to declare

Gabriel and Vanderbilt join freshmen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo in the draft pool.

Gabriel’s numbers as a sophomore — 6.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game — were not eye-popping, but he still was a consistent contributor on a Wildcats team that reached the Sweet 16. Gabriel was the team’s second-best shooter from beyond the arc at 39.6 percent, up from 31.7 percent his freshman year.

UK coach John Calipari thinks his game will translate to the next level.

“Wenyen’s game is where the league continues to trend towards,” said UK head coach John 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.”

Though he was not invited to the NBA combine, nor is he included in most mock drafts, Gabriel said he received “positive” feedback during the pre-draft process.

Injuries limited Vanderbilt to just 14 games during his lone year in Lexington. When he saw the court, he averaged 5.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He missed the first 19 games of the year with a foot ailment and was sidelined for last for the last six because of a gimpy ankle that ultimately led to him skipping the combine.

Vanderbilt put up double-digit rebounds in five games, including 11 points and 15 boards in a win over Missouri. Most project him to be a second round pick.

One particular addition could turn Kentucky into a title contender

Despite the losses of Gilgeous-Alexander, Knox, Diallo and Gabriel to the NBA and Sacha Killeya-Jones (N.C. State) and Tai Wynyard (Santa Clara) to transfers, the Wildcats will have a ton of talent next season.

As usual, Calipari recruited one of the nation’s top classes. Point guard Immanuel Quickley, wing Keldon Johnson and power forward E.J. Montgomery are all rated by Rivals.com as five-star recruits. The Wildcats also landed four-star shooting guard Tyler Herro and could welcome class of 2019 point guard Ashton Hagans, another five-star prospect, to campus this summer if he reclassifies as expected.

Couple that group with Washington, point guard Quade Green (9.3 ppg, 2.7 apg), center Nick Richards (5.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg), guard Jemarl Baker (redshirted) and possibly Vanderbilt, and if you have the makings of a really good team.

But the Wildcats would become a national title favorite if they land Reid Travis.

Kentucky is reportedly heavily involved with Travis, a graduate transfer from Stanford who averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds last season. When Travis pulled out of the draft and decided to leave Stanford, he immediately became the top grad transfer available.

Here’s more on Travis from Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg:

An experienced, skilled interior scorer and rebounder who has expanded his shooting range over the course of his college career, Travis would be a massive addition for any program. The 6-foot-8 power forward averaged 19.6 points and 8.7 rebounds for a Stanford team that finished 19-16 last season and reached the second round of the NIT.

Travis earned McDonald’s All-American honors in high school and chose Stanford over national power Duke and home-state Minnesota. Injuries derailed his career during his first two seasons with the Cardinal, but Travis rebounded to make first-team all-Pac-12 both of the past two years.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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