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Column: Duane Washington Jr. bet on himself and won

While others saw his early departure for the NBA as a gamble, Washington Jr. viewed success in the league as more of a certainty. He is proving doubters wrong, and making Ohio State fans proud.

Washington Jr. has been thriving as an undrafted rookie for the Indiana Pacers Photo by A.J. Mast/NBAE via Getty Images

Hand up — all the way up. I did not see Duane Washington Jr. starting seven games as an NBA rookie, let alone earning a guaranteed contract before the end of his first season. I wanted him to come back to Ohio State because I believed there was a ceiling he had not reached during his time in Columbus. My biggest concern was that he would flounder in the G League or end up in Europe, without ever getting a chance in the NBA. I loved Washington Jr. as a Buckeye, but I genuinely thought him leaving for the pros was a mistake.

Well, I was (mostly) wrong. And in this case, I could not be happier to admit it.

Let’s face it: Washington Jr. was not a high-level NBA prospect coming out of college. He wasn’t projected as a future NBA player coming out of high school either. DWJ was a three-star recruit according to most services, but he did finish his HS career at the famed Sierra Canyon (CA) and there were strong basketball ties within his family. Maybe we should have known better. Maybe we should always give that NBA-probability bump to a guy whose father and uncle played professionally — even more so if he referred to the late, great Kobe Bryant as “Uncle Kobe”.

Pedigree and relationships aside, if you just looked at his collegiate career, you likely would not have pegged Washington Jr. as a guy who was going to contribute in the NBA right away.

He is an undersized combo guard. He shot less than 40 percent during his time at OSU, did not distribute a ton, and would occasionally get careless with the ball. On top of that, he came out of college as a 21-year old who was never the best player on his own team. There are plenty of NBA scouts and staffers who see one or all of those things as red flags. For those who bothered to look deeper – and these are all attributes that Ohio State fans noticed and appreciated during a three-year run – there were certain intangibles to Washington Jr.’s game. Intangibles that can’t be coached or taught.

Ohio State v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Washington Jr. is an “irrational confidence guy”. If you ask him if his next shot is going in, he is going to say yes 11 times out of 10. He won’t shy away from a big moment, he is tougher and more aggressive than he gets credit for, and he is a worker and a leader. Not all of those statements seemed true early in his Ohio State career, but he matured along with his skills and his game, and that is something Chris Holtmann deserves some credit for as well.

The coach of the Buckeyes was not always thrilled with the play or decision making of his former guard, but he eventually came to the realization (this is me guessing) that he needed Washington Jr. on the court in the big moments, and that he could depend on this guy to give it his all. Did it always work out? No. Is Washington Jr. a perfect basketball player? Absolutely not. But Holtmann decided – and I think most OSU fans would agree – that you want DWJ in your basketball foxhole. He gave the Buckeyes a certain swagger and confidence, and he has now taken that mentality with him to the next level.

The former Buckeye went undrafted in the 2021 NBA Draft, but quickly signed a two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers. He spent time with their G League affiliate, and despite not being the most efficient scorer in the world (38% shooting), he showed the Pacers that he could get buckets and knock down threes. In today’s NBA, both are part of a desirable skillset. Efficiency still matters to a certain extent, but it has definitely taken a backseat. I miss the days when guards could score 20 points with 47/37/80 splits, but that’s just me.

Partially due to injuries (but primarily because of his scoring ability), Washington Jr. was eventually promoted to the main roster and saw his first NBA action on Oct. 29, 2021 (51 seconds played, but the analytics nerds will love that he was a +2 while out there). He bounced around between leagues for a few months, until he was bumped for the remainder of the season on Dec. 26. DWJ has played in all but four of the Pacers’ games since then, averaging 20 minutes per. He’s not going to win Rookie of the Year, and he has experienced his fair share of poor performances, but Washington Jr. has largely proven that he belongs. He was rewarded with a standard multi-year deal this past Wednesday.

Washington Jr. is not out there just soaking up meaningless minutes for a consistently terrible franchise (looking at you, Kings). Yes, the Pacers are struggling this year, but the team has been crushed by injuries and bad luck. They are still coached by Rick Carlise — an NBA championship-winning player and coach — and they have some real talent to build around. DWJ could be one of those guys. Of the 47 games he has played, Washington Jr. has scored in double-digits in 23 of them. He set a franchise rookie record with seven made threes on Jan. 24, and set a career-high with 22 points just five days later. The efficiency is still not great, but Duane can score in bunches.

Hopefully, Washington Jr. can stick and continue to prove his doubters wrong. The injuries and circumstances of him getting an NBA audition might be fluky, but 20 points and franchise records are not. The former Buckeye is performing at a higher level than many of his peers, and that is stated without bias. Godspeed and congratulations on the new contract, Duane. Ohio State fans will be cheering from just a few hours away!