MEN'S BASKETBALL: Washington Just Scratching

FAYETTEVILLE — Stefan Welsh couldn't wait for Michael Washington, his former Nike Camp teammate, to finally show up for his first official Arkansas basketball practice last season. He knew all about Washington, now a sophomore forward.

He knew all about Washington's raw mix of inside and outside skills. He knew all about his raging aggressiveness toward rebounding. He knew all about his unshakable unselfishness.

But the Razorbacks knew nothing about him, other than he was that freshman who couldn't practice with them — Washington was waiting to get clearance from the NCAA. They found out quickly. In that first practice, close to the start of the regular season, Washington fought through the huffs and puffs to drill 3-pointers, block shots, throw down alley-oop dunks and snatch rebounds.

"Right when he came in, he was immediately one of the better players on the court," said Welsh, a sophomore guard. "The potential has always been there for him. It's just been a matter of growing and getting better."

That process has been quite arduous the last 16 months. His freshman season, in which he averaged 3.5 points and 1.6 rebounds, was marked by inconsistency. Some games, such as when he battled admirably with Florida's Joakim Noah in the SEC Tournament, Washington looked like a no-doubt, future NBA lottery pick. Other times, he just appeared lost.

In reality, Washington sort of was. Adjusting to college wasn't simple for Washington, who has attended four different schools since ninth grade. He was adapting to more than just bigger bodies on the basketball court, and the entirety of it all overwhelmed him.

But now, a season later, coaches and players describe Washington as a matured man. He approaches school with far more seriousness, and he strives to improve some part of his game on a daily basis. Every day, Washington says, is another chance to learn.

"He's a great learner," Arkansas assistant coach Rob Evans said. "He's a great listener. He pays attention to details. All he wants to know is what he needs to do. And then he'll do it."

Away From Basketball

All his life, Washington had struggled with his academics. His motto then: Just do enough to stay eligible for basketball. Even that approach turned out to be flawed, though. He ended up attending three different high schools, eventually qualifying to play at Arkansas, but the experience didn't prepare him for the daily grind of basketball and school in college.

The first year nearly broke him.

"It was a big adjustment," Washington said. "High school is way different from college. You just went from class to class in the same building. But here, you've got classes at different times, all the way across campus. Then you're tired and you have to practice. I didn't get (comfortable) until the end of last season."

The arrival of John Pelphrey and, most importantly, Evans changed the way Washington thought about his studies. Evans showed him a path, described a way for him to not only get by, but also succeed.

"I think he just needed somebody to believe in him," Evans said.

Confident for the first time in his school work, Washington actually started to look forward to classes. He never ditches. And he serves as a model for his Razorback teammates, going from nearly not qualifying for college to nearly making the Dean's list.

He has gone from the freshman the coaches had to watch out for to the sophomore who the rest of his teammates better keep an eye on. The Hogs refuse to miss classes anymore because their coaches aren't the only people to worry about. They'll hear from Washington, an emerging leader for the future, Evans says.

"Michael is a guy that is always on the other guys about how they should do things," Evans said. "It's really interesting. He has so many leadership qualities and characteristics. And they come out so much now that he's comfortable with himself with all he does. He's not afraid to tell someone how he feels."

Almost Too Unselfish

One fear has held Washington back this season, however — the fear of stepping out of place. The Razorbacks admire the respect he shows for Arkansas' six seniors. But most think Washington took the gesture too far during the nonconference schedule.

He was passing up open shots. He was forcing passes to seniors. He was basically deferring to the seniors in every way. And finally, first-year coach John Pelphrey pleaded with him to stop.

"Mike's a great, great talent," Pelphrey said. "And he needs to know that for us to win, we need him to be aggressive and assertive."

Washington realizes that now as his role continues to increase. He has started Arkansas' past two games in place of senior forward Charles Thomas, and Pelphrey wants more minutes out of Washington as the season progresses.

The obvious reasons for that are Washington's ever-improving skills. Athletically, Washington is a rare breed. He is tall with uncanny instincts and leaping ability, and he "runs the floor like a deer," Welsh said.

A bonus for Pelphrey, Washington fits into his system perfectly.

"To be a 4 in John's system, our system, you have to be able to handle the basketball," Evans said. "You have to be able to defend inside and out. You have to be able to run the floor and finish plays. You have to be able to stick your nose in there and fight.

"He does all those things, and he does them well."

Still, Washington averages just 15.9 minutes per game. His conditioning is there, his stamina is there. But his propensity to get into foul trouble needs changing. Washington has picked up at least three fouls in 10 of Arkansas' 21 contests and has played more than 18 minutes just five times, facts he grasps fully.

Just another area in which to mature, nothing Washington is scared of anymore.

"I'll get past it," Washington said. "I need to quit that because I'm going to be asked to play a lot more minutes next season."

MICHAEL WASHINGTON

Position: Power forward

Height: 6-foot-10

Weight: 224 pounds

Hometown: McGehee

High Schools: McGehee, Cleveland Heritage Christian School (Texas) and Genesis One Christian School (Mendenhall, Miss.)

Notables: Averaging 5.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game this season and has started four games, including the last two. ... Scored 31.6 points, grabbed 14.8 rebounds and blocked 9.0 shots per game as a senior at Genesis One. ... Ranked No. 46 high school player in the Class of 2006 by USA Today.

Hawgs Daily Top Stories