Down by five in the second half against an Illinois team looking to spring its second upset of the year against the Golden Gophers, Isaiah Washington made his way into the game.
He made a 3, set up Gabe Kalscheur for another 3 and dished to Jordan Murphy for a dunk on the ensuing three possessions.
And suddenly, the Gophers wouldn’t trail again.
Washington was the spark plug, as he’s been from time to time this season, in Minnesota’s 86-75 win. He tossed in 12 points with four assists and posted a team-high plus-16 when he was on the floor.
“He creates his own shot,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “I don’t know if anyone else on our team can do that as well as he can. When he’s on balance he’s a good shooter. When he takes good shots he’s a good shooter. He’s playing the right way. He’s only a sophomore. Because of his social media status he gets that burden of higher expectations than probably needs to be. He’s a good player.”
With over 629,000 followers on Instagram, Washington can’t exactly hide from the spotlight. As a highly-touted playground prospect from New York, Washington’s dazzling “Jelly” layups became meme-worthy on social media, but they’ve been less successful from the 6-foot-1 sophomore against the brutes of the Big Ten.
Instead, Washington has been forced to not only improve his mid-range and outside shot, but become a pass-first player — a difficult adjustment for the young guard who delights in showcasing his ball-handling prowess and thrives in isolation opportunities. After failing to record an assist in the previous two games, Washington’s four dimes helped turn Wednesday’s game around. They also seemed to earn him a longer look in the second half as he logged 23 minutes — five above his season average.
Pitino has had a quick hook for Washington if he senses that Washington is infatuated with taking quick shots at the expense of ball movement. He gave him extra leash Wednesday as the sophomore knocked down some tough jumpers while initiating flow in the Gophers’ five-out offense after Pitino says he “scrapped the playbook.”
“This was definitely a good game for me,” said Washington. “It was basically just 1-on-1 basketball today, and I’m a good player at that.”
It was Washington’s third double-digit scoring output of the year and his seventh game with four or more assists. His 11 field-goal attempts were a season high, and he played turnover-free after committing 11 over the previous four games.
The eye test clearly reveals a different Gophers team when Washington is engaged. His low center of gravity allows him to cut on a dime, his tight crossover baffles on-ball defenders, and his chest passes have an extra bit of zip as he looks for 3-point shooters. Washington says the game has slowed down for him, which allows him to play faster than ever.
So what needs to happen for that to manifest itself every game?
“Just keep working hard at practice,” he said. “I’m gonna run the floor and do everything I can to make Coach keep me out there. We’ll see what the results give us.”
For a team that’s frequently rolled with junior Amir Coffey at the point and hasn’t gotten much from grad transfer Brock Stull, Washington’s pure point guard skill-set breathes life into the Gophers oft-stagnant offense. After a game like Wednesday, it’s amazing he’s the same player that was benched for the entire Wisconsin game for, what Pitino called, matchup issues.
Having a social following like Washington has its perks, as well as its downfalls. Pitino has begged his players for years to block out the noise, but as Washington admits, that hasn’t been easy.
“The biggest adjustment is just staying level-headed,” he said. “Some people would get frustrated with the up-and-down games I had, but really it’s just a mental, and I’ve got to stay focused and not let all the outside stuff get to me.”
For the first time this conference season, the Gophers (16-5, 6-4) are two above the .500 mark and separating themselves from the middle of the unpredictable Big Ten. Washington’s volatile play would be a difference maker if leveled out. His quickness blends well in the Gophers’ transition game, his attacks could stimulate the team’s lagging 3-point shooting, and his shot creation could even make him a better end-game threat than Dupree McBrayer.
It’s just got to be there more often.
“The biggest thing,” said Pitino, “is when he comes off the bench he can provide value offensively, he really can.”
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