With TyTy Washington setting a Kentucky record for assists in a game and now projected as a first-round pick in the June 23 NBA Draft, it might be easy to forget he was not an instant success.
Washington remembers. In an interview session Thursday at the NBA Combine, he recalled the sobering 79-71 opening-game loss to Duke. He made three of 14 shots and scored nine points.
There was a meeting with former UK star point guard John Wall and Coach John Calipari in the postgame locker room.
Of Wall’s advice, Washington said, “He pretty much told me straight up: your performance today, you can’t have that kind of performance.”
Then Wall applied the kicker. “Especially where you’re trying to go,” Washington recalled.
NBA aspirations aside, Washington recalled a team meeting in the basement of Calipari’s Lexington home the next day. The agenda was a review of the loss to Duke.
“When he came in, you could tell the energy changed,” Washington said of Calipari’s dramatic late entrance. “There was no windows down there. But somehow it got out there.”
The “it” was the scolding.
“He was getting all over me,” said Washington, who recalled the coach saying, “You’re not playing hard.
“No coach ever said that to me.”
Sprinting played a memorable part of the next practices with Washington feeling like he was the inspiration.
“That definitely helped me,” he said. “This is not high school anymore. You can’t play lackadaisical.”
Washington said he re-watched every Kentucky game after the season. He saw two versions of himself.
He said he played well for the first two months, a period that included the record 17 assists against Georgia on Jan. 8.
Then two weeks later, Kentucky played at Auburn. After that game, “you could tell my game wasn’t the same,” he said.
Of course, Washington sprained an ankle at Auburn. “And then I re-messed it up against Tennessee,” he said.
Thursday, Washington declared himself 100-percent healthy. “And I feel like myself again,” he said.
Washington defined himself in striking fashion.
“I’m one of the most true point guards coming out in this draft,” he said, “even though this season I often played off the ball. Before this season, I was always the point guard.”
Washington spoke of more ups and downs to come next season as an NBA rookie. He said the many former Kentucky players in the NBA could advise him on how to handle personal setbacks.
Washington described his move off the ball as a sacrifice to team basketball.
Washington’s basketball education began with his mother. Felicia Caldwell played on the community college level. A versatile player who could play every position but center, she had the chance to play professionally, her son said, but chose to be a mother.
Washington credited his mother with teaching him about footwork, about taking a smaller defender to the low post and taking a taller defender to the perimeter.
When asked if he ever played a one-on-one game against his mother, Washington said, “I would play my dad rather than my mom.”
“My mom’s better than my dad,” he said with a grin.
As for this year’s pre-draft process, Washington described the interviews with teams as a way of “breaking the ice” and allowing NBA personnel to get to know the players as people.
He said he had received a mixed bag of feedback. The NBA saw him as a capable shooter with an elite floater, he said.
But the NBA advised him to work on improving his athleticism and get stronger.
Bobby Marks, ESPN’s NBA Front Office Insider, saw Washington as being taken somewhere between 10 and 20 in the first round. He said Washington and former Tennessee player Kennedy Chandler are the third- and fourth-best guards in this year’s draft.
And, Marks added, “everybody needs guards.”