Column: Duane Washington Jr. bet on himself and won

Hand up, all the way up. I didn’t see Duane Washington Jr. starting seven games as an NBA rookie, let alone earning a guaranteed contract before the end of his first season. I wanted him to come back Ohio State because he believed that there was a ceiling that he had not reached during his time in Colón. My biggest concern was that he would fail in the G League or end up in Europe, not getting a chance in the NBA. I loved Washington Jr. as Buckeye, but I really thought going pro was a mistake.

Well, I was (almost) wrong. And in this case, she couldn’t be happier to admit it.

Let’s face it: Washington Jr. wasn’t a top-tier NBA prospect coming out of college. He also wasn’t projected as a future NBA player coming out of high school. DWJ was a three-star recruit by most services, but he finished his HS career at famed Sierra Canyon (CA) and there were strong basketball ties within his family. Maybe we should have known better. Maybe we should always give that NBA probability boost to a guy whose father and uncle both played professionally, even more so if he referred to the late great Kobe Bryant as “Uncle Kobe.”

Pedigree and relationships aside, if you only looked at his college career, you probably wouldn’t have identified Washington Jr. as a guy who was going to contribute to the NBA right away.

He is an undersized combo guard. He shot less than 40 percent during his time at OSU, didn’t dish out a ton and was occasionally sloppy on the ball. On top of that, he dropped out of college at 21 and was never the best player on his own team. There are plenty of NBA scouts and staffers who see one or all of those things as red flags. For those who bothered to look deeper, and these are all attributes Ohio State fans noticed and appreciated over a three-year career, there were certain intangibles in the Washington Jr. game. Intangibles that can’t be coached or taught.

Ohio State v. Maryland

Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Washington Jr. is an “irrational confident guy.” If you ask him if his next shot is going to go in, he will say that he will 11 times out of 10. He won’t be scared of a great moment, it’s tougher and more aggressive than you think, and is a worker and a leader. Not all of those statements seemed true early in his career at Ohio State, but it matured along with his skills and his game, and that’s something Chris Holtmann deserves some credit for as well.

The Buckeyes coach wasn’t always thrilled with his former shooting guard’s play or decision-making, but he eventually realized (I guess) that he needed Washington Jr. on the floor in the big moments, and that he I could depend on this guy to give it my all. Did it always work? No. Is Washington Jr. a perfect basketball player? Absolutely not. But Holtmann decided, and I think most OSU fans would agree, that you want DWJ in your basketball trench. He gave the Buckeyes a certain swagger and confidence, and now he’s taken that mindset with him to the next level.

The former Buckeye was not drafted in 2021 nba draftbut quickly signed a two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers. He spent time with his G League affiliate and, despite not being the most efficient shooter in the world (38% shooting), he showed the Pacers that he could catch buckets and knock down 3-pointers. In today’s NBA, both are part of a desirable skill set. Efficiency still matters to some extent, but he has definitely taken a backseat. I miss the days when shooting guards could score 20 points with 47/37/80 splits, but that’s me.

Partly due to injuries (but mostly due to his scoring ability), Washington Jr. was eventually promoted to the main roster and saw his first NBA action on Oct. 29, 2021 (51 seconds played, but the nerds analytics will love that he was a +2 while he’s out there). He bounced between leagues for a few months, until he was eliminated for the rest of the season on December 26. DWJ has played in all but four of the Pacers’ games since then, averaging 20 minutes per game. He’s not going to win Rookie of the Year, and he’s experienced his fair share of poor performances, but Washington Jr. has largely shown that he belongs. He was rewarded with a standard multi-year contract last Wednesday..

Washington Jr. isn’t just sucking up meaningless minutes for a consistently terrible franchise (looking at you, Kings). Yes, the Pacers are struggling this year, but the team has been crushed by injuries and bad luck. They are still coached by Rick Carlise, an NBA championship-winning player and coach, and have a real talent to build on. DWJ could be one of those guys. Of the 47 games he has played, Washington Jr. has scored in double figures in 23 of them. He set a franchise record for rookies with seven 3-pointers made on January 24, and set a career high with 22 points just five days later. The efficiency isn’t great yet, but Duane can score in bunches.

Hopefully, Washington Jr. can stick around and continue to prove his doubters wrong. The injuries and the circumstances in which he got an NBA audition may be coincidental, but the 20 points and franchise records are not. The former Buckeye is performing at a higher level than many of his peers, and that is stated without prejudice. Good luck and congratulations on the new contract, Duane. Ohio State fans will be cheering just hours away!

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