Isaiah Washington had a huge reputation on the basketball court before he even set foot on the floor of Williams Arena as a Gophers player.
He was a star high school player in New York and a co-creator of a movement: Jelly Fam, a group of basketball players who roll a signature layup off their fingertips in a pretty fashion. Washington has developed a brand, plus more than 35,000 followers on Twitter and more than 500,000 on Instagram.
Unfortunately for the 6-foot-1 guard from Harlem, N.Y., his transition to Gophers basketball hasn’t garnered quite the same success he saw in high school as Mr. Basketball in New York – at least not yet. Call it freshman growing pains.
He had potential to be one of the top reserves to come in off the bench for Richard Pitino’s Gophers (14-9, 3-7), but lately, Washington’s minutes have dipped significantly. Of course, things for the Gophers as a team have also dipped recently. They’ve lost six of their past seven games, with the lone victory coming in overtime at Penn State.
So with the injury issues and personnel changes on the team, what’s Pitino looking for in his freshman guard known as Jelly?
“Just gotta get better,” Pitino said, after the 77-69 home loss to Northwestern on Tuesday night. “Just gotta get better more than anything. It’s pretty much that simple.”
Washington had perhaps his best game of the season a few weeks ago, in a 65-55 non-conference victory over Harvard at Williams Arena. He made his second start of the season in place of the injured Nate Mason for the Dec. 30 game. Washington turned on the jets in the second half, ending up one point shy of his first double-double, grabbing 13 rebounds and scoring nine points over a season-high 35 minutes.
Washington’s only 3-pointer of that game in four tries gave the Gophers a 51-42 lead in the second half, coming on the heels of a trey from junior Dupree McBrayer. Soon after, Washington followed that up with a steal-and-lay-up combo for a 53-42 lead. That got the crowd at The Barn to its feet and raise the noise level to the highest it had been all day in celebration of Jelly.
Washington’s 13 boards were a team-high, beating out one of the nation’s best in teammate Jordan Murphy, who had 12 boards to record his 15th double-double of the season at the time.
“He’s been telling me in practice that he rebounds now,” Murphy said, after the Harvard game. “I didn’t believe it until today. That’s good for him. We definitely need someone else to rebound at that level. If it’s him, then more power to him.”
Things just haven’t gone as well for Washington since that game, though. The past four games, he’s played two, seven, five and six minutes, with just six total points on a couple 3-pointers.
Washington has shown some potential to step up and play some big minutes to provide some relief for the Gophers, but it seems like he’s just not quite there yet.
In 16 minutes against Indiana on Jan. 6, Washington was 2-for-5 from the floor. He played decent minutes the next two games against Northwestern and Purdue (27 and 25) but went just 2-for-12 and 3-for-13 in field goals, respectively. He was 2-for-6 in each game from beyond the arc. Tuesday in the home loss to Northwestern, he played just six minutes and made a 3-pointer, going 1-for-3 in field-goal attempts. For the season, he’s still averaging 17.1 minutes per game.
The glaring issue is all the shots that don’t fall – and most of the time, they’re not the best shot options, either.
He’ll drive to the basket with speed, but then the shot doesn’t go, or he’s stopped before he can get there. He’ll take long two-point shots that wouldn’t go either. Especially early on, it was clear he wanted to shoot the ball and leave his mark on the game. That’s a problem when he doesn’t finish, however.
“It just seems like every time he touches it, he shoots it,” Pitino said.
Washington is only shooting 31.6 percent this season (54-for-171) from the field. His numbers when he launches 3-point shots are even worse: He’s made just 12 on 57 tries for 21.1 percent. He started the season making just two 3-pointers in 24 tries over the first eight games. That included a five-game stretch when he went 0-for-13 from beyond the arc.
Maybe he was frustrated when driving the basket didn’t work. Maybe he just wanted the quick points. Whatever the case, launching 3-pointers all the time didn’t seem to lift him out of his funk.
On the positive side for Washington’s game, he averages 6.6 points per game, the highest of the bench players. He’s a decent free-throw shooter when he gets to the line, making 31 shots on 41 tries for 75 percent, second on the team only to Mason. Foul trouble isn’t really a problem for Washington either.
Pitino talked after the Harvard game about Washington continuing to learn and be receptive to coaching, which he was doing. The biggest thing with freshmen is being careful when you tell them what they shot in a game, because they think they can make it, Pitino said.
“So you’ve got to get them to understand that it’s not a bad shot, it’s a low-percentage shot,” Pitino said. “You’ve got to mess with their mind a little bit. But I do think that he is definitely, definitely showing growth.”
Whether that growth has stalled out for now, or Pitino just isn’t seeing what he needs to see from Washington isn’t clear. It’s obvious that there would be a learning curve coming into Big Ten basketball after high school, so maybe it will just take a little more time to adjust as a freshman.
“As a New York City guard, all you know is showtime,” said Queens, N.Y. native McBrayer after the Harvard game. “In this program, you have to do things a little differently while still trying to add a little showtime to it.”