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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ready or Not: Orlando's Darius Washington Awaits NBA Draft

Ready or Not: Orlando's Darius Washington awaits NBA draft

Kyle Hightower
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
May 24, 2006

BRADENTON -- In a simple condo in the heart of a town that seems to have more shuffleboard venues than basketball courts, Darius Washington Jr. is busy giving one of NBA's best players the business.

"Come on, Vince, you don't want none," Washington says after dunking over Toronto Raptors star Vince Carter. "That's OK. You're used to getting beat by me."

Actually, Carter wasn't in the room. And though the person Washington really was taunting while playing video games was Bradley sophomore center Patrick O'Bryant, one thing was clear last week as Washington took a break from workouts out at IMG Academies: These days, the NBA is never far from his mind.

One of 62 college players to declare for early entry in the 2006 NBA Draft, Washington has been in Bradenton since May 8, training at the same facility and with the same instructors that Carter and a host of other NBA players have utilized. The goal is simple: to be the best player he can be for the June 28 draft.

He hasn't hired an agent and still might return to college at Memphis. Darius Washington Sr. is taking precautions to ensure his son doesn't break any NCAA rules, should he decide to return to school. And he is paying $6,000 for Darius Jr. to train at IMG.

But unlike two years ago, when Washington transferred from Edgewater to IMG to finish out his high school career and teasingly tested the draft waters, indications are there will be no pulling out this time around -- barring a dismal pre-draft camp.

Though Washington, 20, is just two years removed from leading Edgewater to Central Florida's only Class 6A title in the past 10 years, his world has completely changed.

He's a new father (Darius III is 5 months old). He endured a moment he never will forget on the court, missing two free throws at the end of the game in the Conference USA tourney final as a freshman. And while he has gained much notice for his skill as a college player, his weaknesses also have been exposed at Memphis.

Pro leanings

Though this isn't considered a deep draft for point guards, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Washington isn't high on a lot of draft boards. Some analysts have even gone as far as to ponder whether Washington was a more attractive prospect coming out of high school than he is now.

"Darius is a kid who could have benefited from staying in school," said an NBA scout who asked to remain anonymous because it's not certain Washington will stay in the draft. "We have him as a second-rounder, but some teams have him as a late first-rounder. He has a good first step, decent range and can get to the basket. He's undersized and isn't a consistent shooter. He has confidence, but sometimes that works against him.

"We kept hearing that [Coach John] Calipari wouldn't mind seeing him go [to the NBA]. It seems as if Darius always had himself pegged for the next thing [the pros]."

As a freshman, Washington was Memphis' second-leading scorer, averaging 15.4 points (on 46.0 percent shooting from the floor and 39.5 percent from 3-point range) and recording at least five assists in 15 of 38 games. The Tigers (22-16) lost in an NIT semifinal.

This past season, he again was the Tigers' second-leading scorer, but his average dipped to 13.4 ppg (on 42.3 percent shooting from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range) and he finished with more turnovers than assists (111-110). The Tigers (33-4) lost to UCLA in an NCAA Tournament regional final.

Despite the lesser statistics, Washington said he "learned how to think the game" and said that makes the negative chatter around him meaningless.

"I mean, I see it. I read it," he said. "That's somebody's opinion, but I still read it because it adds more fuel to my fire. It's motivation.

"It's about business coming down here [to Bradenton]. You come out here for a purpose. That's the point right now, to get better every day."

In his corner the entire way has been Darius Sr., 37, who has missed only one of his son's basketball games since seventh grade. Though he has been criticized for being an overbearing parent, Washington Sr. maintains that if having a close relationship with your child is overbearing, he's "guilty as charged" and won't apologize for it.

"It's nothing we haven't heard before," he said. "With me having Darius at a young age, we've always been more like brothers."

Having been through a challenging upbringing of his own, Darius Sr. vowed to provide his son with a better upbringing than he received.

"My mom always told me she wanted me to live better than she did," Darius Sr. said. "That's all I ever wanted for my son. He's living his dreams, not mine."

Last month, Washington Sr. smiled as he traced his son's first steps in his basketball journey, pointing to the logo at midcourt on the basketball court at Winter Park Community Center.

"It says 'WP' for Winter Park, but Darius used to call it 'Washington's Playground,'" Washington, Sr. said. "This was his spot."

Three weeks ago, when his son returned after the semester ended at Memphis and packed to head to IMG, he said it all had a familiar feeling to it.

"It's just like he did a full circle and is back to the beginning," Washington, Sr. said. "IMG prepared him for college. Now they're preparing him for the next level."

Getting good advice

If Darius Jr. is going to make a successful transition, analysts agree he is going to have to convince teams he can make it as a point guard. Some analysts and scouts have questioned whether he can run an offense effectively.

"Can he make it [in the NBA]? He's going to have to find the right situation, where somebody will be tolerant of what he does," said an NBA front-office executive who asked to remain anonymous. "Coaches like point guards who make good decisions."

In the meantime, Washington is getting a good test at IMG. He's receiving individual instruction from IMG head basketball trainer Joe Abunassar, who has helped more than 30 current NBA players.

Washington said his two years of college ball have made him a much better player than he was coming out of high school.

"What I've done in two years of college, some people haven't done in four," he said. "I can think the game now. In high school, all I did was run, run, run and shoot, shoot, shoot. In college, I really got down to the basics and learned to think more. It's not about just running all the time; it's slowing down and thinking."

Calipari said he has seen that change.

"By the end of the year, Darius had as much impact on our games as any guard in the nation," Calipari said. "The scouts know he has no fear, but the big thing they want to see is if he can run a team. I think he can."

Before making the decision to put his name in the draft, Washington said he spoke with former Florida point guard Anthony Roberson, who left UF after the 2004-05 season. Washington asked Roberson if he had any regrets about leaving school early, especially considering the Gators won the national title this season.

"He told me he just prepared himself mentally for the good and the bad," Washington said. "He said he didn't allow himself to think about the 'what if?' future. He told me he didn't regret it at all."

Roberson wasn't drafted and isn't on an NBA roster. But Washington said the most important thing he learned from Roberson is what went into his decision-making process.

[Leaving Memphis] was hard," Washington said. "But I made the decision that was best for me. That was to pursue my dreams. This whole process has taught me responsibility, on and off the court.

"I keep on being the same. That's what I do. I don't try to change anything. Trying to go to the league is my goal, so I'm not going to change what got me to this point. I'm going to keep on being the same."

Kyle Hightower can be reached at khightower@orlandosentinel.com.

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