Another day, another integral member of the 2020-21 Ohio State hoops team declares for the NBA Draft. Nine days after E.J. Liddell declared for the 2021 pro draft, while maintaining his college eligibility, on April 9, star point guard Duane Washington Jr. has followed suit.
As I mentioned in my previous article – discussing E.J. Liddell’s jump into the NBA draft process – I expect the two-time, former Illinois Mr. Basketball to return for his junior season, for reasons explained in the article. And, although Washington Jr. has an additional year of experience playing at the collegiate level, I expect the Buckeyes’ star guard to don the scarlet and grey for one final dance in 2021-22.
The smart money is on the former three-star recruit from the 2017 cycle, Washington, approaching this decision in the same vein as his Ohio State teammate, and viewing the draft process as an opportunity to gain the valuable experience of journey – workouts, interviews, feedback, etc – without taking the final plunge of actually turning pro.
The 6’3 point guard out of Sierra Canyon High School had a great season as a junior: finishing second on the team in scoring (16.4ppg), behind Liddell, while shooting a cool 37% from three-point range. He capped off the season with a spectacular four-game stretch during the Big 10 conference championship, when his hot hand ignited for a 44% shooting clip from beyond the arc (16-36) on the way to averaging 24 points per game as the Buckeyes fell just short of claiming their fifth Big 10 Conference Tournament title.
But Washington struggled to be consistent with his shot, especially early in the season and noticeably struggled from three in the Buckeyes’ humiliating first-round exit in the NCAA tourney, especially late in the game. And his late-game struggles were a common thread throughout the season. The Buckeyes would visibly stutter on offense in the clutch when Washington took it upon himself to play ‘hero ball’ in close games.
Washington didn’t make as big a jump as some might have expected in his junior year. His overall field goal percentage increased by only a fraction of a percentage point while his three-point shooting dropped from 39% in 2019-20 to a still laudable 37% this year. Coaches and other key decision-makers at the NBA level may wonder if Washington has much more room to grow in his game, or if he has already mined the full scope of his potential. Another year at Columbus, where he can improve aspects of his game – he is not a particularly gifted passer for a point guard (2.9apg in 2020-21) and has yet to prove himself a reliable enough shooter to be a starting two-guard (40% shooter from the field in his college career with a streakiness to his shot from downtown).
Another factor that will weigh on Washington’s final decision is the calibre of his fellow collegians who appear fully committed to making the transition to the NBA in 2021. The field is awash with uber-talented guards in what is set to be one of the deepest drafts, in terms of overall talent, we have seen for a while – especially at the guard position. Cunningham, Suggs and Green are the leading names, but there are high-ceiling options down the length of the draft when you consider the Keon Johnsons, Moses Moodys, Jared Butlers and Ayo Dosumnus of the world. With a draft so stocked with basketball pedigree, it will be a tall ask for Washington to make himself noticed.
Which is why all signs should point towards another year of work at Ohio State to improve his game and, by extension, his draft stock. The return of both Washington and E.J. Liddell will also be a boon to a Buckeyes team that is seen as a consensus top-10 program for the 2021-22 campaign.