The Gophers’ East Coast swing had basketball fans in New York asking the same question that Minnesota fans have been wondering: What’s going on with Isaiah Washington?
The crown jewel of Richard Pitino’s 2017 recruiting class and one of the most hyped freshmen ever to enter the Gophers program suddenly is spending more time on the bench than he is on the court.
To think Washington was immune to a freshman slump would have been naive. It happens to the best young players. But the flashy 6-foot-1, 160-pound Harlem native has only played a combined 20 minutes in the past four games, including six minutes in Tuesday’s 77-69 home loss to Northwestern.
“He’s got talent,” Pitino said. “He’s just understanding it’s not as easy as people think jumping from [the high school] level to the Big Ten. But he’s got a bright future.”
Washington, the presumed Gophers point guard of the future, was averaging 7.6 points in 19.7 minutes in his first 19 games, which included five double-figure scoring performances and two starts. But he has averaged 1.5 points and 5.0 minutes in the past four outings.
Pitino talks to Washington daily to try to make sure he’s not getting discouraged.
“It’s hard when you only play five minutes,” Pitino said. “His time will come soon. He needs to take this time under Nate [Mason] and grow.”
Pitino is not allowing freshmen to speak to media this season, so Washington was not made available to comment.
The plan for Washington always seemed like it was to be the heir apparent to Mason, an All-Big Ten senior and co-captain. But New York’s high school player of the year and co-founder of the Jelly Fam movement said before the season that he “didn’t come here not to start.”
The Gophers made him the starting point guard in the Miami (Fla.) and Harvard games when Dupree McBrayer (leg) and Mason (ankle) were resting injuries. Washington took an obsessive amount of difficult shots and combined for 24 points on 10-for-34 shooting with seven turnovers in two games.
After the Harvard victory, Washington still posted to his 500,000 Instagram followers a video of him scoring on the fastbreak with his well-known “jelly” finger roll.
Washington puts a lot of effort into his social media presence; he changed shoes once at halftime, against Purdue. But he’s not only about style and social media fame. He has shown signs of improvement.
He had five assists and one turnover in 27 minutes at Northwestern on Jan. 10. He was 4-for-10 from three-point range in back-to-back losses to the Wildcats and Boilermakers. But he is shooting 31.6 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from three-point range.
Washington wrote Thursday on Instagram: “Y’all Know What’s Going On Been Down This Road Before, A Lil’ Adversity Hit Still Didn’t Fold.”
McBrayer, a junior guard and fellow New York City native, has been in Washington’s ear of late, to stick with it and not have any regrets about coming to play for the Gophers.
“I tell him all the time, ‘I’ve been through it here,’ ” McBrayer said. “This is a learning experience. To become the best player you want to be, you got to work hard. I think he’s starting to grasp that.”
Mason said the Gophers need more from Washington and the bench. The starting guards are wearing out at the end of games, which has contributed to six losses in their last seven games heading into Tuesday night’s game at Iowa.
“You got to be able to come out there and compete for 40 minutes or whatever time he gets,” Mason said. “He’s just got to stay in the gym and stay confident.”