Jalen Washington turned 15 years old this spring. But the attention that comes with being one of the top high school basketball prospects in the county – and that day is definitely coming – is already starting.
Washington, a 6-foot-8 Class of 2022 prospect at West Side (Gary, Indiana), looks a lot like Jaren Jackson Jr., when he was that age. That might sound like high praise considering Jackson, 19, needed just one year at Michigan State before he was selected with the fourth pick of the 2018 NBA draft by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Washington was offered a scholarship this month by Indiana and Purdue. Coaches Archie Miller and Matt Painter each watched at least one of Washington’s games on Saturday at the Underclass Showcase at Ben Davis. They watched him step out and knock down jumpers with a beyond-his-years-for-a-big-man soft touch. They watched him corral rebounds and alter or block shots with his long wing span. They watched a 15-year-old who knows what he wants to do on the low post but is not always quite strong enough to finish.
They will continue to watch a young man who has all of the potential to be one of the state’s brightest stars. But as his star rises, Washington is hardly paying any attention.
“I’m just trying to focus on playing basketball,” said Washington, who also has an offer from DePaul. “I don’t worry about anything else. No outside noise. I don’t worry about what people are saying or thinking about me. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. What college coaches think – that’s what matters.”
Chris Buggs saw this coming three years ago. The West Side coach set up a plan for Washington, hardly expecting a 12-year-old to follow it completely. He would ask for 500 shots in a workout. Washington would shoot 700.
“He’s one of those kids would took his game really seriously at a young age,” Buggs said. “Off the court, he’s a really goofy, lovable kid. But on the court, he wants to be coached hard. He doesn’t like breaks, doesn’t like to be massaged. He’s one of those kids who wants to be really good.”
Buggs grew up in Gary and was a member of West Side’s 2002 Class 4A state championship team. He took over as head coach in 2016 and has guided the program to improvement each season from 3-21 his first year to 16-8 last season. Even as West Side struggled, Buggs knew what he had coming with Washington, whose older brother, Jimmie Washington Jr., was a senior last season and will play at NAIA Central Methodist (Mo.).
“We talked about this when he was younger when nobody was really talking to him,” Buggs said of the recruiting attention Washington is beginning to receive. “So a lot of things coming to him now are not really a ‘wow’ moment for him because he was expecting it. There are still some things he has to get used to as far as the attention he gets – like random people who want to talk to him. He got an IU offer, so you know how that goes in Indiana. But he’s taken really well to it.”
Washington’s anticipated freshman season was nearly over before it started. In the season-opening game against Marquette Catholic, an opponent fell on him while battling for a rebound. “Being goofy, I fell, too,” he said with a laugh. The result was a fractured right shoulder that sidelined him until mid-February. Washington played the final six games of the season.
“It set me back,” he said. “Not with my game, but I had to get back in the repetitions of the game and get my wind back. Being out got me out of shape a little bit.”
Buggs describes Washington as an “old school” personality. He does not have much a social media presence (he has tweeted once and has 26 followers), preferring to spend his down time studying players like Karl-Anthony Towns or Kevin McHale. And, yes, Jaren Jackson Jr.
“This whole (recruiting) process is a lot of extra stuff that he’s not really interested in,” Buggs said. “He’s one of those throwback, old school kids. He has a 3.8 GPA, too. He just wants to work hard and hang with his family and friends.”
Buggs said he does not worry about losing Washington to the prep school route, though it did happen to his program last year when Chrishawn Christmas, a 6-5 junior with Division I offers from DePaul and Stetson, left for Teays Valley Christian in West Virginia.
“That’s not something we think about (with Washington),” Buggs said. “He has a great group of friends, a great social network and his parents are grounded in the community. He’s a player that is going to get a lot of attention in Gary.”
And he is sure to get a lot of attention when he travels. He will play with his Meanstreets 15U program at the Peach Jam in July during the only evaluation period of the month. ESPN has him ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the country in the 2022 class, the only Indiana player listed in the top 25.
But Washington is a long way from where he wants to be.
“I’m trying to get every single accolade I can get by the time I’m a senior,” he said. “McDonald’s All-American, Mr. Basketball. I know I have to put in the work to do it.”