ST. CHARLES – Most newcomers find the transition to varsity basketball more difficult than they expected it to be. For St. Charles East junior forward A.J. Washington, the opposite has held true.
Washington, one of the area’s most impressive newcomers, acknowledges he thought it would be tougher to find his game at the varsity level than has turned out to be the case.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” Washington said. “I thought it’d be hard because all the older kids were telling me how hard it was. But I think it’s fun.”
Those who have observed the high-rising, rangy Washington’s skill set understand why the game comes easier to the 6-foot-4 forward than most players.
Washington, East’s leading rebounder, isn’t alone in marveling at how quickly he’s made his presence felt since ascending from the sophomore level.
“I think the transition for him has been a lot easier than I thought it would be,” Saints coach Pat Woods said. “He’s obviously been phenomenal on the boards for us. ... I think the cool thing about him is you’re going to see him get a lot better still because what he’s doing right now, a lot of it’s just on his natural ability. I think every game as the weeks go by, he’s getting smarter and smarter from a basketball sense.”
Washington is averaging about 8 points and 8 rebounds a game for East, and is seemingly gaining steam as the season unfolds. Woods said Washington led the Proviso West Holiday Tournament field with a field goal percentage of 74 percent, and he averaged about 10 points a game at Proviso, where the Saints went 2-2 despite Purdue-bound standout Kendall Stephens missing more than half the tournament after re-injuring his shoulder.
Woods said Thursday that Stephens is out “indefinitely” pending a doctor’s visit next week, meaning Washington’s emergence becomes even more critical for the 9-4 Saints, who return to action Saturday against Evanston.
Washington began the season as East’s sixth man but has worked his way into the Saints’ starting lineup. He’s been a fan favorite from the get-go, as an array of emphatic dunks and blocked shots has often worked the student section into a frenzy.
East senior center Dan Wilkerson said it’s difficult keeping Washington off the glass in practice but considers Washington’s top attribute to come in the intangible department.
“I think it’d be energy, on the defensive end and on the glass on the offensive end,” Wilkerson said. “And just all the dunks and stuff gets the crowd pumped up.”
Washington plays above the rim in a way that few around the Upstate Eight Conference can.
“It’s just fun being up there,” Washington said. “It’s like a different area. It’s not like down low where you’re getting hit around. You’re kind of free to do whatever you want.”
Washington has to be careful not to lean too heavily upon his ability to sky.
“Sometimes I get yelled at because I’ll try to jump over people, get the over-the-back when I could just kind of go around,” Washington said.
Woods has been encouraged by Washington’s recent knack for knocking down midrange jumpers, but continued refining of his shot and ball-handling skills would increase Washington’s prospects of attracting attention from college coaches as a wing at the next level.
There’s little question he’ll put in the work. Washington, who plays AAU basketball with Woods’ Illinois Old School AAU program, comes from a basketball-loving family.
His older half-brother, Josh Mikes, was a standout forward at St. Charles North before moving on to Winona State (Minn.) for college football. Washington’s younger sister, Kyra Washington, is a starter for the St. Charles East girls basketball team and frequent partner of his when he heads to the gym for extra work.
Washington also was close to his cousin, former North Central College football player Shaun Wild, who was fatally stabbed while trying to protect a friend at a Naperville bar in February. That tragedy “gives me a lot more motivation” to make the most of his talents, Washington said.
Despite Mikes starring at St. Charles North, Washington said he is glad his family’s move put him in the St. Charles East district.
When Mikes’ North Stars played the Saints, “I would stay on the East side, but I would cheer for [Mikes],” Washington said.
These days, Washington’s high-flying theatrics ensures the Saints’ crowd has no shortage of reasons to keep cheering.