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For Ohio State's Duane Washington Jr., growth is all 'mental' this basketball season

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Duane Washington Jr. is Ohio State's top returning scorer and played well when pressed into service at point guard last season, but he wants to raise his game further with a better mental approach.

Duane Washington Jr. wants to be the player who takes the shot at the end of the game. Midway through his college career, the Ohio State junior guard has proven that he’s capable of putting himself in that position and succeeding.

There’s more to it than the physical act of shooting, though, and Washington spent the offseason developing his approach, with the help of his parents.

“I think my mental has changed a little bit,” he said. “I had a lot of deep conversations (with my parents) about life and who I am as a person and I grew up a lot. You’ve got to be mature to be the leader on the team, mentally and physically.”

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His growth will have as much to do with Ohio State’s success this season as any other factor. He is the team’s leading returning scorer after averaging 11.5 points per game, and in getting there he led the team in percentage of shots taken while he was on the floor (28.2%, according to KenPom.com).

And after freshman D.J. Carton left the team, Washington capably filled in at the point to give CJ Walker a breather, and he finished with the lowest turnover rate on the team.

Now, without Kaleb Wesson anchoring the offense and only three available players in the backcourt, coach Chris Holtmann is all in on a big season from Washington.

It’s right on time, said Washington’s father, Duane Washington Sr.

“As a basketball player, you’re supposed to develop as you get a little older, especially if you’re not just working physically but you work on your mental part of it,” he told The Dispatch. “It happens at different times for different players. Now that he’s a junior, it’s a pretty good time.”

The elder Washington has been well-suited to oversee his son’s development after a professional career that included two stints in the NBA as well as time with the Columbus Horizon of the Continental Basketball Association, where he won the league’s long-distance shootout in 1992. His younger brother is five-time NBA champion Derek Fisher, who spent 18 years in the league and housed Duane Jr. for his senior season of high school basketball at Chatsworth (California) Sierra Canyon.

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But it has been years since father and son have been able to spend so much time together in their Grand Rapids, Michigan, home. The workload included access to a private gym, loads of film work and weightlifting, conditioning sessions and talks about life.

“Clearly, coaches know and have a great relationship with their players, but my son, they still don’t know him like I do as his dad,” Duane Sr. said. “He really wanted to take the next step, and I’m sure the staff was talking to him as well. Most of it lined up and I was able to be more impactful again like I hadn’t necessarily been his first couple years because there wasn’t time.”

The younger Washington said the film work hammered home some deficiencies in his game. He would watch himself drive, get walled up by three or four defenders and still force a shot rather than pass to an open 40% three-point shooter in Andre Wesson waiting in the corner.

“If you have the ball in your hands a lot, you can shoot it whenever you want,” Duane Jr. said. “Looking at it now, I have a totally different view on (how to play). Picking and choosing when to make the right decisions has been something I’ve definitely been thinking about and forcing in my brain.”

That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes want Washington to suddenly become something that he’s not. Holtmann said he doesn’t want the junior to become a pass-first point guard and neglect his natural skills in the process.

“He’s got to utilize his unique gifts in scoring and there is a freedom that he has,” Holtmann said. “My challenge for Duane is to grow in that area of defense and just continue to be him. He took major steps last year.”

It’s all about balance, something Washington said he feels more mentally prepared to handle thanks to his mom and dad and the time spent together during quarantine. His dad is looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labors.

“There isn’t a greater feeling than to see your child develop,” he said. “I just feel like his game will be more well-rounded. He’ll have more understanding. It starts with your mental.”

It’s clear that the younger Washington feels more mentally prepared to attack the upcoming season and that he’s put in the work to do so. Now it’s time to see it come together.

“Junior year got here quickly,” he said. “Mentally I’m prepared and ready to take on this challenge and be who the coaches want me to be and do what I have to do to help the team win.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy