Tiger's optimism guarded
Washington starting to win over skeptics
By Ronald Tillery, Memphis Commercial Appeal
June 11, 2006
ORLANDO --- Wearing an alien No. 15 and with the heavy burden of critics reaching at every dribble, Darius Washington Jr. began another chapter in his basketball career with his eyes wide open and determination stamped across his face. Washington never viewed his first major NBA draft audition as starting over, despite the pedestrian path he's been forced to take.
He arrived at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex with one goal: To impose his will in hopes of pushing a few buttons and tugging at the strings tied to his destiny. "All my life I've been doubted, and every time I've proved the critics wrong," said Washington, 20. "Eventually, they have to jump on the bandwagon. I say you have to force-feed them. They eventually have to say they were wrong. I'm just going to let my play do the talking. That will change a lot of minds and a lot of fingers from typing the wrong thing."
The consensus when the NBA's pre-draft camp concluded is that Washington did exactly what he had to during three games in the Milk House gymnasium.
He put together a good week.
In total, Washington connected on 12-of-17 shots, including 5-of-8 from beyond the 3-point arc. He averaged 21 minutes and 10.4 points -- a showing capped by 10 points and six assists in 22 minutes last Friday.
Washington easily emerged as the best point guard in a camp with higher ranked players such as UCLA's Jordan Farmar and Iowa State's Will Blalock.
"Hopefully," Washington said, "I'll get positive feedback, and I can stay in (the draft). I've been trying to show what I can do and then do what everybody says I can't do. This week will weigh heavily."
And not just on Washington.
He gave NBA general managers and coaches something to think about.
They wanted to see Washington consistently play under control and make good decisions.
He did just that, and it would be difficult to find any observer who believed Washington didn't solidify his draft status. One prominent GM predicted that Washington would be drafted late in the first round.
Washington displayed potential that goes beyond his NBA-ready body (6-2, 195 pounds), quickness and scoring ability. Those are expected ingredients. Washington, though, made strides in areas considered where he is considered weak.
He proved he can run a team and play active, disruptive defense.
"He has a great sense of what to do," said Grizzlies assistant coach Mitchell Anderson, who coached Washington during the pre-draft camp. "He has the ability.
"Coaches wanted to see if he's mature enough to run a team. All it takes is one team to like you. There are a lot of teams looking for guard play -- backup guards to develop -- and he has potential. He can play in the league."
Washington, who has not hired an agent, can decide by next Sunday if he will remain in the draft or return for his junior year at the University of Memphis.
Voice of support
Noticeably absent from the camp was the person who will help Washington make up his mind, Darius Sr.
Holding a credential to attend the camp, Darius Sr. instead never appeared and went to work for the City of Winter Park as an assistant recreation director. He manages community centers.
Darius Sr.'s way of managing this part of his son's life was to relieve some pressure. So Darius Jr. just packed his father's advice in his brain and picked up his gym bag.
"Why go?" Darius Sr. wondered aloud. "So everybody could say this and that about his dad? He's his own man. I don't have to be there every step. I'm not a parent that's caught up. I don't pamper my kid. When he comes home he does chores.
"But he knows I support him. And I get a bad rap for that -- being a man that's standing behind his child. People say his dad is overbearing and is trying to live his dream through his kid. But the story doesn't start with Darius. It starts with me being a hard-headed kid who wouldn't listen. If anyone wants to talk about someone having a bad attitude, it's me. I tell Darius if you want to be successful let me tell you what not to do."
No one is more in Darius Jr.'s corner than Darius Sr. -- a 37-year-old former basketball player who has missed only one of his son's games since the seventh grade.
"He's always there even if it's good or bad," Darius Jr. said. "He always tells me the truth. And it's not just my dad. It's my mom, too. Both are very supportive parents. My mom is just laid back."
And proactive, too.
Before Darius Jr. became a new father (Darius III is 5 months old), his mother, Tarchelle, moved to Memphis to help take care of the expecting mom throughout the pregnancy.
Before declaring for the draft, Darius Jr. sat down with his parents and weighed the pros and cons. His parents' blessing made the decision easy and clear.
"Right now, I'm going full speed ahead," Darius Jr. said. "School is an option. But if I wanted to go back to school, I wouldn't have put my name in the draft. My reason for putting my name in the draft is not to go back to school. That's with anybody. Everybody in that gym isn't here just to be here. Everybody is trying to fulfill their dream. I feel like it's time for me to fulfill mine."
Darius Jr. insists that his early entry into the draft has nothing to do with his new responsibilities.
"They are going to be taken care of regardless," Darius Jr. said of his child and his mother. "It makes me play harder knowing I have a family of my own to support. But that's not pressure. Pressure is everyday life. People have more pressures than me.
"Sometimes I sit back and think, if I'm having a bad day, that somebody is having a worse day. Some people got to wake up and go to two or three jobs. I'm trying to make my job basketball, so I'm taking advantage of my opportunities. When it's over, I want to say to myself that I gave it all I had."
Like father, like son.
Darius Sr. is paying for every cent of his son's exploration with the NBA draft. He's reportedly forked over at least $6,000 for workouts at IMG Academy. Washington's family paid for his expenses to work out for the Houston Rockets, and will pay for upcoming sessions at New Jersey and Toronto.
Darius Sr. said he's following every rule to protect his son's NCAA eligibility. The NCAA allows the NBA to pay for the league's pre-draft camp without any impact on a player's college eligibility.
If Washington chose to return to school, he would go through the process of proving he paid up front for the expenses.
"If (the NCAA) wants to look at my bank account, they can," Darius Sr. said. "They can look at whatever. I've got everything documented. It's not to the point where it's hurt me. My lights aren't off yet.
"Of course, I'm going to look for a cheaper ticket. I might put him in a nice hotel. But he's not a greedy kid. He's not trying to be like those who have agents. He knows this is on our budget."
Darius Sr. scoffs at the notion that he's acting like an agent.
In fact, he's already turned several away for the sole purpose of preserving his son's amateur status.
"I haven't negotiated anything," Darius Sr. said. "There are professionals who do that. I'm not an agent and don't have aspirations to be one. I just said to Darius that if you feel it in your heart, I'm behind you all the way."
Talk to Darius Jr. long enough and it's clear that he hangs on his dad's every word.
The key ingredient to their relationship is honesty. Perhaps the most difficult truth Darius Jr. heard from his dad had to do with his draft status. Darius Jr. didn't believe he needed to attend the pre-draft camp.
He wanted to turn down the invitation like many of talented prospects do nowadays.
Darius Sr., though, insisted his son had plenty to prove.
"That was something that was done at home," Darius Sr. said. "Darius is the kind of kid who always asks why. I told him you have to make it happen. I told him to go in there and let these people see what you can do. He's a good kid. You tell him to do something, he's going to do it. It wasn't a shock to me that he went in there and did what he did."
Before Washington arrived in Orlando, he spent time training with former NBA head coach John Lucas and Grizzlies point guard Damon Stoudamire in Houston at Rice University. He's worked out with or spoken with his cousin, Chucky Atkins, Vince Carter and other NBA players.
"All of those guys have given me knowledge of the game," Washington said. "They all want to see me make it."
Before now, Washington had been considered a long shot. He wasn't high on a lot of draft boards. Some NBA prognosticators wondered whether Washington would be drafted.
One of the most viewed web sites is nbadraft.net, which at times hasn't included Washington but now has him going in the second round (56th overall) to Toronto.
Expect that to change.
"Each year, there's always a sleeper. The projections change every day," said Washington, who talks with Memphis teammates and draft hopefuls Shawne Williams and Rodney Carney weekly. "How can one day a guy be fifth and the next he's 30th? Unfortunately, a lot of people look at that web site. But each day somebody is discovered. Gilbert Arenas (of the Washington Wizards) was taken in the second round and look at him now."
The harsh reality of the NBA's pre-draft camp is that if you're playing there, you're likely not a first-round prospect. So Washington knew he had to answer questions of being able to display conventional point guard skills. He's more of a combo guard because Washington is too small to play shooting guard in the NBA despite owning a quick first step and a strong body.
Critics believe that his second season with Memphis exposed weaknesses but Tigers coach John Calipari worked the gymnasium like a campaigning politician.
"I want these players to chase their dream," Calipari said of Carney, Williams and Washington, who owned the highest academic marks on his roster. "They want to see if he can run a team, and I think he can."
On-court decision-making has been the knock on him throughout his college career, but it wasn't during the camp.
He set up teammates in good position to score around the basket with crisp passes. Washington calmly sank open jump shots and struck a nice balance between looking for his own shot and involving teammates.
His shortcoming was gambling too much on defense. Then again, coaches tend to like mistakes born out of aggression.
"He's got great quickness. He's played well against top competition," said Marty Blake, NBA's director of scouting. "I certainly like to see kids stay in school. But he's an outstanding ball-handler, and he has a chance to play in the NBA. There is no impact player but this is a very deep draft despite what some people will tell you."
So how does Washington sum up the beginning of his odyssey as No. 15 and an early entrant in the NBA draft?
"I'm going to prove," he said, "that I belong."
-- Ronald Tillery: 529-2353