After long recovery from knee injury, confident Washington shows his star potential

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — Jalen Washington got a crash course about playing extended minutes in a high-level college basketball game. He got through it tired and sore but not before showing why Carolina was so excited that he decided to take his game to Chapel Hill.

“I was happy that people can see how talented he is and the potential that he has because we get to see it every day in practice,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said of Washington, who was a four-star recruit.

Washington, a 6–10, 225 stretch-four freshman with a 7–4 wingspan, missed his senior season in high school and the first nine games of this season recovering from surgery to repair a partial tear to his ACL and lateral meniscus in his right knee. He had logged only 19 total minutes over six games before he played 27 minutes in Tuesday’s 65–58 loss at Virginia.

“Playing extended minutes like that is pretty hard,” said Washington, who scored 12 of his 13 points in the first half and pulled down six rebounds. “You’ve got to stay locked in on every possession, and that can be hard when you get tired.”

Tuesday’s performance was a long time coming for Washington, who went through the physical challenges of recovering from knee surgery while trying to stay positive, knowing that he’d eventually be able to get back on the court and show his talents.

“It was definitely a lot more mental than it was physical,” Washington said of the challenges. “Just staying trying to stay motivated, trying to stay positive were the biggest things. Taking every day as a battle. Just want to attack each day as hard as you can. So. I would say that’s the biggest thing about coming back from my injury.”

He said he got through it thanks to terrific support from his parents and siblings.

“It’s just been pretty great for me,” Washington said. “They’ve just been in my ear with nothing but wisdom and motivation and positivity.”

The journey hasn’t been easy, but he’s thankful to be part of a program with such a rich basketball tradition.

“It’s just been a blessing,” Washington said. “I’m blessed to be here, be a part of this team. This coaching staff, it’s just this has been great. With the ups and downs that I’ve had, there’s more to come. But I feel like I’m preparing myself for every step of the journey.”

One NBA scout called him the best prospect on the UNC roster, but he’s not worried about what anybody outside of the Carolina program says about him.

“I can be as good as I want to be if I just go hard as possible,” Washington said. “I haven’t really been listening to any outside noise or anything. I’m just trying to do my part and prepare myself each and every day and go as hard as possible. So, I feel like everything else will just take care of itself.”

Washington describes himself as a “skilled four” who can shoot from the perimeter and space the floor, although he missed his only two 3-point attempts against the Cavaliers.

“I feel like that’ll come as I get used to playing on this level,” Washington said of his perimeter shooting. “I love the face-up game.”

Washington was limited during preseason practices and gradually increased his activity before eventually making his college debut with two points in two minutes against Georgia Tech on Dec. 10.

When Armando Bacot turned his left ankle in the first two minutes of Tuesday’s game at Virginia, and Pete Nance was out with back issues, Davis called on Washington.

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He’ll likely be counted on for big minutes again Saturday at 2 p.m. at Louisville (ESPN), with Davis saying Friday that he didn’t expect Bacot or Nance to play.

Washington said he came out confident in his play at both ends but said the big lessons came in the second half when the minutes kept piling up and he looked tired. Washington admitted that he was “pretty sore” the next day after his most action in two years.

Davis said that Washington’s conditioning level is “10 out of 10” but pointed out that basketball shape is different, and he’s not at a 10 yet in that regard. He added that the only way to get there is to play.

“There’s a joy about being out there on the floor, and he just loves to play,” Davis said. “He’s an unbelievable kid to coach. All the guys on the team just adore him. It’s been a while since he’s been out there on the floor, and for him to get that opportunity in for an extended period of time and to be able to have success? I think there was joy. I think there was confidence. I think there was relief. I think all those things.”

Even when Washington wasn’t getting much playing time in games, he got terrific experience on a daily basis going up against Bacot in practice.

“He’s a really strong guy. The biggest difference is the strength, the maturity and the experience level,” Washington said.

Whenever Bacot returns to the Carolina lineup, the Tar Heels can count on Washington to be not only a solid backup but a future star.


DateMonth/dayTime/scoreOpponent/event
(current ranking)
LocationTV/record
October
28FridayW, 101–40Johnson C. Smith HomeExhibition
November
7MondayW, 69–56UNCWHome1–0
11FridayW, 102–86College of CharlestonHome2–0
15TuesdayW, 72–66Gardner-WebbHome3–0
20SundayW, 80–64James MadisonHome4–0
Phil Knight Invitational
24ThursdayW, 89–81First round: PortlandPortland5–0
25FridayL, 70–65Semifinals:
No. 11
Iowa State
Portland5–1
27SundayL, 103–101,
4 OTs
Consolation:
No. 3 Alabama
Portland5–2
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
30WednesdayL, 77–65 No. 18 IndianaBloomington, Ind.5–3
December
4SundayL, 80–72 Virginia TechBlacksburg, Va.5–4,
0–1 ACC
10SaturdayW, 75–59Georgia TechHome6–4,
1–1 ACC
13TuesdayW, 100–67The CitadelHome7–4
CBS Sports Classic
17SaturdayW, 89–84, OTOhio StateNew York8–4
Jumpman Invitational
21WednesdayW, 80–76MichiganCharlotte9–4
30 Friday L, 76–74PittsburghPittsburgh9–5,
1–2 ACC
January
4WednesdayW, 88–79Wake ForestHome10–5,
2–2 ACC
7SaturdayW, 81–64Notre DameHome11–5,
3–2 ACC
10TuesdayL, 65–58No. 8 VirginiaCharlottesville11–6,
3–3 ACC
14SaturdayW, 80–59LouisvilleLouisville, Ky.12–6,
4–3 ACC
17TuesdayW, 72–64Boston CollegeHome13–6,
5–3 ACC
21SaturdayW, 80–69No. 22 N.C. StateHome14–6,
6–3 ACC
24TuesdayW, 72–68SyracuseSyracuse, N.Y.15–6,
7–3 ACC
February
1WednesdayL, 65–64PittsburghHome15–7,
7–4 ACC
4SaturdayL, 63–57 DukeDurham15–8,
7–5 ACC
7Tuesday7 p.m.Wake ForestWinston-SalemESPN
11Saturday2 p.m.ClemsonHome ESPN2
13Monday7 p.m.No. 19 MiamiHomeESPN
19Sunday1 p.m.No. 22 N.C. StateRaleighESPN
22Wednesday9 p.m.Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.ESPN or ESPN2
25Saturday6 or 8No. 8 VirginiaHomeESPN
27Monday7 p.m.Florida StateTallahassee, Fla.ESPN
March
4Saturday6:30DukeHomeESPN
ACC Tournament
7–11Tuesday-SaturdayTBATBAGreensboroTBA
If tickets for home games are available, you can purchase them here.
ACCN means the game airs on ACC Network.

Photo via @UNC_Basketball

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