The Gophers cannot be criticized for making loud noise over the signing of point guard Isaiah Washington on the second day of the early signing period in November 2016. He was the player of the year in the state of New York, and also came with an internet full of highlights as the “Jelly’’ in the JellyFam (family) of dynamic shot-makers.
There were two notable senior point guards in the Twin Cities that winter: McKinley Wright at Champlin Park and Brad Davison at Maple Grove. Davison was locked in for Wisconsin and Wright signed with the Dayton Flyers.
Wright became Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball. When Archie Miller left Dayton for Indiana in April 2017, Wright was let out of his commitment and signed with Colorado.
Richard Pitino did reach out to Wright, but his point guard of the future was Washington, and Colorado was a much-stronger opportunity for Wright. At least, it seemed that way in late April 2017.
We are now 40-some games into the college careers of Wright, Davison and Washington. Wright is the leading scorer and a star at Colorado. Davison is enough of a presence at Wisconsin that he has been accused in the national media of being the No. 1 flopper in the country, which is quite a claim in a country that includes Duke.
Meantime, the Gophers opened the Big Ten home schedule vs. Nebraska on Wednesday as thin in the backcourt and with a strong need for Washington to become a facsimile of the point guard anticipated when Pitino and his now-departed recruiter, Kimani Young, convinced Isaiah to leave The City for the Midwest.
A year ago, the Gophers had senior Nate Mason playing through injury as the point guard. Washington received plenty of minutes after other injuries, but he was not often put in a position to run the show.
The Gophers attempted to fill the point guard gap late with Marcus Carr, a transfer from Pittsburgh, but the NCAA decided that the sophomore had sit out the traditional one year before playing.
All the whining about the NCAA’s decision on Carr can be construed in part as an indication of ongoing pessimism over Washington’s ability to seize the position.
So far, Amir Coffey has been starting at point guard, and he did that with style in Wednesday’s 85-78 comeback victory over Nebraska. He scored a career-high 32 points, and dominated the game with a 14-point, five-minute down the stretch, and then in bring back the Gophers from a 13-point deficit in the second half.
Yet, the Gophers would look much more like a first-division team in the Big Ten if Washington was able to take over as another primary ballhandler. He was supposed to serve an apprenticeship under Mason and then take over as the point guard with Coffey by the winter of 2018-19.
Washington played eight minutes in the first half vs. Nebraska. He was able to get to the basket for layups twice soon after coming off the bench. He wound up 2-for-3 from the field, but there were a couple of obvious defensive lapses.
In the second half, Washington played a total of 1:41 – 68 seconds in the middle of the half, then 33 seconds in the final minute. Brock Stull, a senior transfer from UW-Milwaukee, appeared to be taking some of what had been Isaiah’s minutes.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino was asked Tuesday what was the key to it being a good night for Washington rather than a poor one – making a couple of shots early, perhaps?
The coach said that wasn’t it. He said it was shooting fewer threes and driving to the rim more often. And he said it was Washington continuing to push the ball and find teammates on the wings.
Washington followed the shot advice for Pitino: All three of his field goal attempts were on drives. He did not have an assist while playing a total of 10:21.
Pitino said that Washington’s overall play definitely is trending upward. Obviously, the coaches also are trying to convince Washington of that, as he also said Tuesday that his play was going in the right direction.
Clearly, you have to be a coach with expertise in studying video to see this upward trend with Washington. The rest of us wonder how it has taken this long for the best player in the city – and the state – of New York to make an impact in the college game.
For now, the prize recruit from New York has been left behind by the Twin Cities point guards in the Class of 2017. Here are the stats:
Isaiah Washington, Minnesota
Games: 41 (4 starts). Minutes: 19.5. Scoring average: 7.9. FG shooting: 118 for 341 (34.6). 3-Point shooting: 25 for 112 (22.3). Assists: 102. Steals: 23.
McKinley Wright IV, Colorado
Games: 39 (38 starts). Minutes: 32.6. Scoring average: 14.2. FG shooting: 166 of 368 (45.1). 3-Point shooting: 32 of 107 (29.9). Assists: 216. Steals: 43.
Brad Davison, Wisconsin
Games: 42 (38 starts). Minutes: 31.2. Scoring average: 11.4. FG shooting: 149 for 375 (39.7). 3-Point shooting: 70 for 201 (31.3). Assists: 96. Steals: 47.