Isaiah Washington’s first shot Saturday was a contested floater along the baseline, a high degree of difficulty, which predictably rimmed out.
His second shot got blocked. His third shot was a pull-up three-pointer in transition that missed short.
By halftime, Washington had taken a team-high nine shots. He had made only one. Gophers coach Richard Pitino probably was ready to pull his hair out.
“It just seems like every time he touches it, he shoots it,” Pitino lamented, only half-joking.
Washington took eight more shots in the second half, but in those 20 minutes he displayed better decisionmaking and situational awareness in helping the Gophers polish off Harvard 65-55 at Williams Arena.
Washington started at point guard in place of injured senior Nate Mason, and the freshman’s performance encapsulated his rookie season. He showed flashes of the brilliance that made him a social media sensation before arriving on campus, but he also had some maddening decisions in his shot selection.
Washington scored nine points on 4-for-17 shooting but also collected a team-high 13 rebounds with two assists and two turnovers in 35 minutes. Weird game for a talented youngster who remains an enigma.
“I’m definitely seeing growth,” Pitino said.
The Gophers need Washington to smooth out his rough edges as Big Ten play beckons because their bench isn’t deep and Washington can become a legit difference-maker in their second unit.
Right now, he looks like his head is spinning trying to mesh his style of play within the structure of Pitino’s system.
Washington became an internet sensation as a New York City phenom with a reputation and brand built largely on his fancy finger roll finishes. He brought excitement to Minnesota, but he also joined a veteran team with an All-Big Ten point guard in Mason. Growing pains were probably inevitable.
Junior Dupree McBrayer, a fellow New York native, used his own personal experience in explaining that process.
“As a New York City guard, all you know is showtime,” McBrayer said. “But coming to this program, you have to do things a little different while still trying to add a little showtime. … When you come to a high-major school, you have to learn how to play with other high-major players.”
Washington’s shooting has suffered as he learns when to be assertive and when to slow down and initiate the offense. He is shooting only 15 percent from three-point range and 34 percent overall. And yet he has attempted the fourth-most shots on the team.
Pitino has tried different methods to drive home his message about shot selection. “You’ve got to get them to understand that it’s not a bad shot, it’s a low-percentage shot,” he said. “You have to mess with their mind a little bit.”
Pitino and Washington recently sat down and watched video of Washington’s basketball idol, Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving. They studied 75 layups by Irving off penetration.
“Kyrie does some wacky layups at times,” Pitino said. “But for the most part, they’re two-foot, off-the-glass finishes.”
This is tightrope coaching because Pitino doesn’t want to impede Washington’s confidence or fearlessness. Washington, who was not brought to the interview room Saturday, is so quick, it seems he could torch his defender every possession. Harnessing that impulse is an ongoing process.
He showed growth Saturday. He played mostly under control in the second half, and his rebounding and defense were exemplary.
A 4½-minute spurt put his full potential on display. Washington blew by his defender for an uncontested layup. He made a three-pointer on a catch-and-shoot. Then he exploded down court on a fast break for one of his patented finger rolls over a defender.
Williams Arena roared as Washington’s flurry gave his team an 11-point lead. Gophers fans have been waiting for moments like that.
This young man no doubt is supremely talented. Now he just needs to harness it and become more consistent.
“He loves the game, he lives for basketball,” Pitino said. “It’s just a learning experience more than anything.”