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Heading into the new season, everyone knew Duane Washington Jr. could score. Coach Monty Williams said as much throughout training camp, and he reiterated it Wednesday night after the Phoenix Suns’ preseason finale.
“The scoring is something that we knew that he could do well,” Williams said with a slight smirk before his next comment. “He doesn’t have any fear, at all. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it gets him in trouble.”
Against the Sacramento Kings, Washington nearly carried a Suns team missing its entire starting lineup and most of its bench to victory. In a game-high 39 minutes, he finished with 31 points, 4 assists, 3 steals and shot 10-for-19 from the floor.
However, as good as he was offensively, there were two negatives that stuck out in his mind immediately after the fact. The first was missing the potential game-winner on the baseline.
Despite Washington coming up short on the biggest shot of the game, his coach was encouraged.
“I like the fearlessness, I like his willingness to take shots, even at the end,” Williams said. “He hasn’t been in those situations, so he’s probably thinking timeout, and we don’t want to call a timeout and let them set their defense. So he goes down the floor, and he’s willing to take that shot. I love that about him. He doesn’t have any fear, and like I said, it helps him at times, and sometimes it can be the thing that makes me pull hair out of my head if I had some.”
The hair-pulling inclination is understandable. When we laid out expectations for Duane Washington Jr. earlier this summer, one of the biggest questions was whether his irrational confidence was more fitting for a bottom-feeder like the Indiana Pacers, or whether it could be harnessed on a title contender. Wednesday showed how productive that mindset can be at its best, but the limitation of experience reared its head too.
Washington’s last-second misfire was eerily reminiscent of the Suns’ prior game against the Denver Nuggets, where Washington missed a potential go-ahead shot and a potential game-winner in the final 35 seconds. The first miss was basically from the same spot on the floor as Wednesday’s potential game-winner.
However, much like his approach all throughout the offseason and training camp in Phoenix, Washington listened to what Devin Booker and Chris Paul had been telling him, internalized it, and pledged to put his head down and go to work after this latest learning experience.
“It’s a blessing,” Washington said. “Got my big bros, Book, CP just hollering at me through my ears before this game, today, ‘Just learn from last game, apply what you learned.’ Unfortunately I missed it again, but great look. Got exactly what I wanted this time, and next one’s going in. That’s the only way you can mentally operate and mentally go forth with it, otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy at night.”
Likewise, Williams saw value in throwing a determined worker into late-game situations and letting him grow from both success and failure.
“I thought the shot he hit on the baseline was almost the same shot he had in Denver, so the ability to come back and take that same shot says a lot about his belief in his game and the work that he’s put in,” Williams said. “He’s a diligent worker. He’s been in our gym for darn near two months, if not more, before the season started, and we saw some things with him that excited us as a development guy. Playing in games like that, you’re not afraid to throw him out there because you know he’s not gonna play tentative.”
Although he’s only on a two-way contract, Washington has quietly been stating his case for earning actual minutes in the Suns’ rotation. Cam Payne’s right finger sprain could threaten his status for Phoenix’s season opener next Wednesday, which is what gave Washington his opening in the first place.
“For D-Wash, I’m excited for him,” Chris Paul said. “This league is about opportunities, and so I think he’s gonna get a chance to play some now, and he’s a really good player, a smart player.”
With or without Payne, the 22-year-old scoring guard has shown too much already to be completely buried on the bench. After earning a DNP-CD against the Adelaide 36ers, Washington saw just 8 minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers. That was bumped up to 19 minutes against Denver when Payne got hurt, and although he only shot 3-for-10 overall, he still put up 10 points and 6 assists.
Williams admitted Washington had a tough time trying to score in the Suns’ new system at first, but he’d also been impressed with his floater and ability to finish high off the glass — something he struggled with in Indiana but was firing on all cylinders against Sacramento.
That goes double for using his size to get to the foul line, which he did 11 times Wednesday night. It’s been a focus for Washington heading into the new season, and although one preseason game is hardly reason to reset expectations, that skill would be a welcome one on a Suns team that ranked 29th in free-throw rate last year.
However, the second negative that stuck out in Washington’s mind is the one that indicates where he needs to grow the most: as a point guard. Strictly speaking, Washington is more of a scoring guard. That much was clear well before he joined Phoenix, since the individual shot-making that dominated Wednesday’s proceedings was on full display in Indiana:
But given Phoenix’s needs, especially with Payne currently sidelined, he’ll need to continue building on those playmaking chops without coughing the ball up. Williams was willing to cut Washington some slack for his 11 turnovers as a product of fatigue.
“I thought he made some good pocket passes early that helped us, but the 11 turnovers is something that on a night like that, when you have 31 points, I’m sure he’s going to be kicking himself over some of the turnovers,” Williams said. “It’s not an excuse, but I thought he was just spent. There were a few turnovers where he just had nothing in the tank. When a guy hasn’t played a ton, and then you get him to 39 minutes, that’s a lot. And so I would give him a little bit of grace with the turnovers.”
The young guard was having none of it.
“I’m very frustrated with myself, losing the game, having 11 turnovers, but it’s something that I will chalk up and get better at,” Washington said. “We’ll work on the things we need to work on, watch film, analyze it, learn from it, and forget about it.”
It’s important to remember that Washington spent most of his time off-ball in Indiana. He pointed out after the Kings loss that this was his first week of truly playing point guard in the NBA, which makes his ability to sniff out pocket passes and move the ball where it needs to go fairly impressive.
After all, Washington ranked in the 91st percentile in passing versatility and the 98th percentile in passing creation quality last season, per The Bball Index. He may not be a traditional floor general, but some of the passes he’s thrown in preseason have been reminiscent of the flashes he had with the Pacers.
“I know that I can score the ball at a high level, put the ball through the rim, and make shots,” Washington said. “I believe in myself. I always have and I always will. I just have to be better, and I definitely will be. I can’t wait to watch this, break it down and figure it out.”
The Suns have praised Washington’s work ethic since his arrival. He prides himself on learning at least one new thing every day, and that lunch pail mentality is something he’s learned from his “older brother” Devin Booker, as well as his own family. When Booker called Washington to welcome him to Phoenix, he told his “little bro” it was time to get to work.
“That’s all I know, that’s just my lifestyle,” Booker explained. “And he’s known that. I know his pops, I know his uncle, I have for a long time. I think his dad has a lot of similar qualities and the same qualities as me, so he’s been getting taught that from a young age. So I know it’s not new to him.”
No one should be making proclamations about Washington usurping Payne in the rotation based on three preseason games. Over that stretch, Washington shot just 13-for-34 and had as many assists as he did turnovers (12). But with Payne sidelined for the short-term, Washington has an undeniable opportunity in front of him. If he can seize it, the Suns may be able to groom a young combo guard to create offense for himself and for others with the second unit.
As always, the key for Duane Washington Jr. will be harnessing his willingness to be vocal, enthusiastic and outgoing into asking questions and soaking up as much information as possible from more experienced teammates.
“I’m a real confident guy,” he said. “I make tough shots, I put the ball in the rim at a high level. I did it last year and I’m here to show that I can do it again, and anything that I can do to help ultimately win a championship. The day I got here, that’s something I realized that we want to do here, and it’s not taken lightly.”
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