Friday, June 21 2024
<img class="caas-img has-preview" alt="PJ Washington of the Dallas Mavericks reacts during the fourth quarter of his team’s Game 6 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday in the Western Conference semi-finals.Photograph: Sam Hodde/Getty Images” src=”” data-src=””>

“I was in a restaurant with my wife when I found out,” PJ Washington tells me. “We were just happy and screaming.” This is surely not the typical NBA player’s recounting of the moment he finds out he’s been traded. But the Dallas Mavericks forward isn’t on the typical NBA player’s trajectory. Five years after he was drafted in the first round by the longtime cellar-dwelling Charlotte Hornets, Washington got a call at the trade deadline in February that was life-changing: he was headed home to Texas.

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We sat down with Washington ahead of the Mavericks’ opening game against the red-hot Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night in the Western Conference finals, a best-of-seven-games battle for a place in the NBA’s championship round. The 25-year-old Washington is actually a Dallas native, who says he grew up going to Mavericks games as a kid “all the time” and watching present-day coach Jason Kidd run the point alongside Dirk Nowitzki. Looking back on those formative years on Tuesday morning, shortly before boarding a plane to Minneapolis, Washington acknowledges that circuitously finding his way back to DFW – especially on a team with championship potential – is immensely fortunate. “It’s a full-circle moment,” he tells the Guardian. “Being able to come back home, play for the home team. Not a lot of guys get that opportunity.”

What Washington has done with the opportunity is remarkable. The 6ft 7in, 230lb power forward has been a seamless fit in Dallas, plugging effortlessly into the team’s newfound identity as defensive stalwarts and serving as an ideal supporting cast member for Luka Dončić, the runner-up in this season’s MVP balloting, and born-again-into-relevancy All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. “I was a little nervous at first,” says Washington, having never dealt with the upheaval of being traded. “But when I got here, everybody welcomed me with open arms, encouraged me to be myself each and every day.” Soon enough Washington was comfortable, and finding himself with the opportunity every young, talented player in the league dreams of: to blossom. “When I got here, it was always my mentality to go out there and do anything I had to do to help my team win,” Washington says. “That’s just who I am as a player.” The winning for Dallas commenced almost immediately, as they won 31 of 49 games following the deadline to vault to the fifth spot in the West standings.

While Washington has always possessed something of a pedigree, as a McDonald’s All-American and one-and-done at the vaunted University of Kentucky, some onlookers worried that four and a half years in a losing environment like Charlotte could spoil his winning habits. But for Washington, that was never a concern. “I just have a love and passion for the game. I’ve always wanted to go out and win every game I played.” That hasn’t wavered, he says. He’s just gotten a different opportunity in Dallas. “It was easy for me to go out and compete [even under the circumstances in Charlotte], because I just love being able to say I’m even in the NBA, playing against guys like LeBron, the better guys in the league.” He is quick to add that he wasn’t alone in his desire to win in Charlotte, that other players on the team had the same talent and hunger, but just simply weren’t lucky enough to be life-rafted to a better situation. “I feel like a lot of the younger guys there have that same mentality,” he says. “[Winning] just didn’t happen.”

That’s not to say that it wasn’t a relief for Washington to be back to playing consequential games. He’s proven to be among those special players who are able to ascend to their ultimate potential the brighter the lights become. He attributes this trait to his competitiveness – “I just hate losing. As a kid, even, I was always like this.” – and it shows. He’s been the Mavericks’ third-most important player through two rounds of postseason play. He was, in fact, the team’s second-leading scorer in their pivotal second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, ahead of Irving, sealing the series with a pair of game-winning free throws.

Asked what was going through his mind then, feet on the stripe, seconds left in the contest, his hometown team’s ticket to the Western Conference finals hanging in the balance, Washington said his comfort and preparation awarded him the necessary calm called for by the moment. “I just thought about all the work I’d put in [up to that moment] trying to get better, being able to calm myself down, to just focus.” Another important factor? “I knew my team-mates would be happy with me either way.”

Washington, who is represented by Lift Sports’ Kevin Bradbury and in the first season of a three-year, $46.5m contract, says that the Mavericks have “great leaders” and a team full of guys who just want to win. Beyond that, the chemistry is off the charts. “We’re all excited for each other, we all want to see each other be happy,” he says. “We’re there for each other on the court and off the court.” Therein might lie the lesson for any team hoping to swipe their own PJ-in-the-rough on the trade market from a lottery team. Of course, it’s paramount to find someone like Washington, a player with innate passion, talent and fire. But bringing him into the right situation is what will ultimately differentiate the successes from the disappointments in the second-chances department.

Washington says he hasn’t had much time to reflect yet on his star turn. “Everything’s happened so fast, I’m still trying to soak everything in,” he says. “But if I do look back, right now, I think I would be proud of myself, as a kid. Just being able to reach this point in my career, in my life. A lot of people don’t get this opportunity, so just being able to say that I’ve been here, I’m forever grateful for that.”

Source: Yahoo Sports


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