A Kentucky basketball offseason that has been as busy as ever with arrivals, departures and roster shuffling was still missing one key factor.
Though John Calipari had already recruited some potent offensive weapons on the perimeter, retained some promising talent in the frontcourt, and overhauled his coaching staff with a couple of blockbuster hires, the search was still on for an impact player at his most crucial position.
Calipari still needed an impact point guard.
That search is over. TyTy Washington will be a Kentucky Wildcat.
Washington — a 6-foot-3 prospect with a 6-9 wingspan — pulled the trigger on a public commitment a tad sooner than his previously planned Saturday announcement by revealing his decision Wednesday night to play for the Cats.
Kentucky fans — along with Calipari — can now breathe a sigh of relief.
UK has found its man, and this isn’t just some late addition to fill an area of need in a pinch.
Washington is exactly the type of player that Calipari had been looking for.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader last week, 247Sports analyst Travis Branham was asked about some of the other point guards on Kentucky’s radar for next season, and he used the phrase “good fit” to describe a couple of them. Then the conversation turned to Washington.
“He makes for a perfect fit,” Branham said. “His ability to score the basketball, to make plays for other people, defend — his toughness that he brings to the floor — there’s just so much to like.”
That’s the conclusion that Calipari surely came to when watching Washington lead his team through the Geico Nationals — the de facto national tournament for high school basketball — last month, sending his Arizona Compass Prep squad all the way to the semifinals before they were ousted by No. 1-ranked Montverde Academy (Fla.), the eventual national champ.
Washington fits the mold and mentality of other point guards that Calipari has had so much success with in the past. He can score, but he’s unselfish. He can defend, and he has incredible length on the perimeter. He plays hard. He’s a lead-by-example competitor who doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight. (And he can even shoot).
If Calipari was looking to get a little of that new-to-Kentucky swagger back with the return of Orlando Antigua — and the addition of fellow ace recruiter Chin Coleman — he might also be getting some of that attitude that his earliest, best UK teams had with the commitment of Washington.
Branham mentioned the personalities of John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins that loomed large — in a good way — over that first Calipari team during the 2009-10 season, the one that declared Kentucky basketball was back as a college basketball power.
“Those guys just had that edge to them. TyTy is kind of similar to those guys, just speaking to that edge,” Branham said. “He plays with that toughness, that grit. He’s not super loud or super vocal, but he just goes out and he gets his stuff done. He wants to compete. He’s just a really good talent, and a really good basketball player.”
This past high school season, Washington was one of the very best high school players in America.
He averaged 24 points, six rebounds and seven assists per game and got his Arizona Compass Prep team — a relatively new program on the national scene — to the highest level of high school basketball much more quickly than expected.
MaxPreps.com named him one of five first-team All-Americans. The competitive, consistent play led to a rise in the recruiting rankings, all the way to the No. 16 overall spot on 247Sports’ final list. ESPN posted a 2022 mock draft this week that had Washington as the No. 15 selection a year from now.
When he decommitted from Creighton — following head coach Greg McDermott’s racially insensitive comments toward the end of the season — he became one of the hottest recruits in the country. He ultimately narrowed his list to four schools, and Kentucky — with Calipari taking over the recruitment himself — beat out Arizona, Kansas, and Louisiana State for his commitment.
He’ll come to Lexington a few weeks from now as the presumed starter for a program with perennial Final Four expectations.
“The attention stuff doesn’t bother him,” said Pete Kaffey, the program director at Arizona Compass Prep. “The attention we got this year — going around the country and playing games and winning and being very successful — that stuff doesn’t bother TyTy.
“TyTy is like a guy that you don’t want to play poker with. Because you’re going to lose your money. He has that poker face. He just wants to win, man. He never gets too amped up. The moment is never too big for him. Calipari, I love his coaching style. I love the fact that he gets everything out of you. He’s going to allow you to play. And TyTy is a kid that — if you trust him and allow him to play — he can do really good things for your team.”
TyTy Washington at Kentucky
Washington was already on UK’s recruiting radar before point guard signee Nolan Hickman backed out of his commitment to the Wildcats late last month, a move that made getting someone like Washington a necessity rather than a luxury.
Hickman’s decommitment came a few weeks after Devin Askew — the starting point guard from last season’s team — decided to transfer to Texas and just a few days before Davion Mintz — the player who had taken over the bulk of UK’s point guard duties by March — said he was putting his name in the NBA Draft pool.
That left UK without a single point guard on a 2021-22 projected roster that — at pretty much every other position — looked like a national contender. Washington has now filled that need, and he might’ve been the best fit for Calipari in the entire 2021 class, regardless of commitment date.
Paul Peterson was Hickman’s head coach at Wasatch Academy (Utah) this past season and had to watch as Washington dropped 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to eliminate his team from the national tournament.
“He’s an elite scorer, but he’s also a good team guy, too,” Peterson told the Herald-Leader. “His jump shot is so beautiful, but the biggest thing with him is he’s relentless. It doesn’t matter if he goes 1-for-8 in the first half, you better be ready to guard him in the second half, because he does not lack confidence. He’s going to come at you even harder in the second. I think that’s the biggest thing — he’s a competitor.”
When the final 247Sports rankings came out a few days ago, Washington rose nine spots to the No. 16 overall position. Hickman dropped five spots to No. 41 on the list.
Washington, who turns 20 years old in November, was getting plenty of attention before the national tournament, but his profile blossomed even more afterward, especially with Calipari and Kentucky.
“Players who thrive in our culture are players who are physically tough, who have a mental toughness to them, who want the challenge and are not looking for guarantees, and who want to see how good they can be in a really competitive environment,” Calipari said. “All of that describes TyTy Washington. He wanted this. He wanted the challenge. He is a combination guard who can play both point and off guard. He is a downhill runner who physically gets to the rim. His physical attributes and his mental approach leads me to believe he will be a terrific defender, too.”
He’ll join a UK team that is expected to have three above-average-to-excellent three-point threats at the shooting guard spot — incoming transfers CJ Fredrick and Kellan Grady, and returnee Dontaie Allen — with Mintz leaving the door open for a possible return. That scenario would give the Wildcats yet another scoring/shooting threat, as well as a secondary point guard to spell Washington for a few minutes a game.
The need for a second point guard could be filled before Mintz makes a final decision, with Kentucky now presumed to be the favorite for reigning SEC assists leader Sahvir Wheeler, a transfer from Georgia who is expected to announce his new college destination soon.
The Cats will also boast plenty of frontcourt talent, a group that currently projects to include post players Oscar Tshiebwe, Daimion Collins and Lance Ware, along with versatile forwards Jacob Toppin and Bryce Hopkins, as well as the possible return of Keion Brooks.
Landing a star point guard — the key ingredient in most of Calipari’s best teams — was the final piece to the puzzle. And landing a player the caliber of Washington — seen as a possible NBA lottery pick a year from now — should elevate the Cats to the top of the national discussion.
It sounds like Calipari found the right player, and it seems Washington came to the right place.
“All of that hype — I think it’s just going to get him more motivated to go out there and do his thing,” Kaffey said. “And the fans — how crazy the Kentucky faithful are — that’s just going to motivate him. But he’s not going to get caught up in that. The stage is never going to be too big for him. He’s a pro. You guys have just now seen it.
“Compass had a really good season, and he was one of the main guys behind that. A lot of people have shined a light on us, and now you’re starting to see that he’s a diamond in the rough.”