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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Jalen Washington

Can the talented big man make the freshman-to-sophomore leap?

Syndication: The Fayetteville Observer Timothy D. Easley / AP / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Tar Heels recently received some good news with James Okonkwo announcing his commitment. The 6’8 power forward from West Virginia was a last-minute addition and likely marks the completion of the roster. Okonkwo only played 11 minutes a game last season for the Mountaineers but he’s physical and athletic enough to carve out a role. Perhaps his biggest competitor for playing time is the next guy up in these previews: Jalen Washington.

Past Previews links:

Armando Bacot

Cormac Ryan

Paxson Wojcik

Jae’Lyn Withers

RJ Davis

Washington had some really nice stretches throughout last season but his opportunities were limited mainly due to the presence of upperclassmen Armando Bacot and Pete Nance. He averaged 2.2 points and 1.4 rebounds while recording just 5.6 minutes per game. He shot 45.7% from the field and 64.7% from the free throw line.

From the jump, what stood out about Washington was his smooth jumper. It’s rare to see a freshman come in and shoot the ball with such confidence, much less a big man. He didn’t take too many threes but it’s clear that will eventually be a part of his game. Washington was at his best when he got the ball near the baseline with space in front of him. More often than not, he faced up his defender, jabbed, and shot over the top, regardless of whether the defender bit on the jab step.

What makes Washington’s jumper such a luxury is that he’s not only 6’10, but he also has a high release point. Many times, he elevated with a hand right in his face and still calmly knocked it down. There aren’t many players in college basketball with the length and athleticism to block that kind of shot, and Washington uses that knowledge to his advantage. After a full offseason of repetitions, I expect him to be just as, if not more reliable, even with an expanded role.

In his limited minutes, Washington provided a solid rebounding presence though I think he can still improve in that area. With a 7’4 wingspan and enough strength to hold his own, he is seemingly built for rebounding. He did a good job of routinely carving out space, but at times his timing and balance were off. Of course, at least some of that can be attributed to the injuries he suffered in high school.

It’s important to remember that last year, Washington was coming off two consecutive ACL tears in the same knee. Not only was he below 100%, but there’s no telling what that mental battle is like on the court when you know you’re susceptible to those injuries. Regardless of what you think about his playing time (or lack thereof), the fact that Washington made it through the entire season without getting seriously hurt is a win for both him and the Heels. Now, after having had some significant time to heal, he can hopefully play quicker and looser.

Speaking of his injury trouble, it’s also partially to blame for the biggest knock on Washington: his defense. Not to just use it as an excuse for everything, but shifting your feet on defense is typically the the most injury-prone act, hence the phrase, “break his ankles.” Washington struggled when he was lured away from the paint and forced to get down in a stance. He was forced to play the four perhaps too much, but he didn’t provide much resistance to smaller, shiftier players. When the Heels played at Virginia with both Nance and Bacot injured, Washington was much more effective as a rim protector.

Overall, there’s a lot to be excited about with the return of Jalen Washington. If he can get his legs fully under him, the sky is the limit for what he can do at the college level and beyond. Although he’ll have to compete for minutes with guys like Okonkwo, Jae’Lyn Withers, and Zayden High, Washington is unique in that he’s the only true center behind Bacot. If he doesn’t start alongside him, expect Washington to get all those minutes at the five when Bacot goes to the bench. Regardless, out of all the players returning (which is four….), he has a chance to make the biggest leap. I believe Washington will be a major-impact player for this Carolina team.