Richard Pitino returns nearly everyone from a 24-win NCAA tournament team, including several players who received All-Big Ten honors.
But freshman Isaiah Washington is arguably the most talked about player for the fifth-year Gophers men’s basketball coach – and he hasn’t even made his debut yet.
The 6-foot-1, 160-pound throwback New York City point guard has as much hype surrounding him as any newcomer in the Big Ten. And several preseason lists have already tabbed Washington as one of the top incoming freshmen in the conference.
“He had a really, really good summer,” Pitino said. “That’s one step. That’s a small step, so we’ll see where it goes from here.”
Most recently, Scout.com rated Washington No. 2 among Big Ten freshmen expected to make an impact. The only player ahead of him was Michigan State’s 6-foot-11 big man Jaren Jackson Jr., who was a top-10 player in the Class of 2017.
In Street & Smith’s college basketball preview magazine, Washington was on the five-member all-newcomer team that included Jackson, Michigan’s Jaaron Simmons (Ohio transfer), Maryland’s Darryl Morsell and Illinois’ Mark Alstork (Wright State transfer).
In Lindy’s Sports magazine, veteran recruiting analyst Frank Burlison seemed enamored with Washington, who he ranked as the 19th best incoming freshman in the country and second best in the Big Ten. Burlison called Washington the best playmaker/passer of all the incoming Big Ten recruits, and “the best point guard not to be selected in the McDonald’s All-American game.”
Burlison’s prediction that Washington “might lead the Big Ten in assists before long” doesn't seem that far-fetched. Although that might not happen this season playing with All-Big Ten point guard Nate Mason, who averaged five assists last season. But it could come to fruition as early as Washington's sophomore year.
Lindy’s 2017 recruiting class rankings listed Minnesota as 17th nationally, because of Washington and New Jersey guard Jamir Harris, one of the top shooters in the class. Burlison said Washington and Harris would’ve been the type of East coast backcourt in the 1980s and 1990s that could help a Big East team compete for a conference title and make an NCAA tournament run. That’s the heaviest praise I’ve seen for the future Gophers backcourt.
Social media can never have enough of Washington's "Jelly Fam" brand and different versions of their trademark layups. So ESPN’s Sportscenter Twitter feed picked up a video of the New York Mr. Basketball standout dribbling, spinning and twisting for a jelly finger roll last week during a workout at the Bierman practice court on the U campus. And, of course, it went viral with more than 17,000 favorites.
“He loves to play,” Pitino said. “Sometimes when you see all that media stuff, you think maybe he’s not and about some other things. But he’s really not. He lives in the gym. He just loves ball and loves to compete.”
-- Sophomore power forward Eric Curry, who suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier this month, was having surgery to repair a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus Wednesday morning.