Duane Washington Jr. appeared set for a beautiful inheritance.
For three seasons, the 6’3 combo guard piloted Grand Rapids Christian, a powerhouse in Michigan’s Class A division. But a pair of big men still exerted most of the gravitational pull, none more than Xavier Tillman, a Michigan State signee and the top 2017 prospect in the state.
When the Eagles’ undefeated season was spoiled in a state-title loss, the silver lining was that Washington would return after a junior season in which he posted 13.1 points and 4.5 assists per game.
Over the course of this spring, Washington’s jump to the Nike EYBL circuit as a member of The Family, a vaunted grassroots program in Michigan, cemented expectations. Playing alongside high-major recruits Trevion Williams, Gabe Brown and David Dejulius, he paced The Family with nearly 15 points per game, finished second in assists, and shot 45.8 percent behind the arc.
The story arc was easy to envision: with room to operate and a mandate to attack, Washington would helm Grand Rapids Christian to another deep playoff run, racking up high-major offers along the way — including a compelling and long-awaited one from Michigan State, a blue blood that has so far slow-played its courtship.
Except, well, nope.
Instead, Washington is uprooting himself. And the relocation isn’t local. Last week, he told Rock M Nation he intends to join Sierra Canyon, a prep powerhouse based in Southern California. He’ll share a roof with an uncle who knows about navigating life as unheralded recruit and clawing your way up: former Los Angeles Lakers point guard Derek Fisher.
“He invited me to come live with him for my senior year,” the combo guard said last week. “He’s like, ‘You’re going to get so much better from this experience.’ It was just something I couldn’t pass up.”
In early July, Mizzou joined a line of new suitors wooing Washington. Assistant coach Cornell Mann is attempting to build a Michigan pipeline of sorts, and Washington could become the first product of that.
Now, though, the terrain shifts to warmer climes.
Missouri’s recruiting board mutated in July, with 2018 prospects like Jericole Hellems, Aaron Henry and Justin Ahrens emerging as potential targets. Washington, who is unranked and considered a three-star prospect by recruiting services, may not add much glitz to a class that includes wings Javon Pickett and JUCO-via-UIC transfer K.J. Santos. But what he does offer is a reliable shooting stroke, size if asked to play the point guard and the potential for Cuonzo Martin’s program to strike a vein of talent outside the St. Louis metro area.
Michigan commit David Dejulius opted not to play with The Family, which left a vacancy at point guard. It was the ideal opening. Throughout the EYBL season, Washington slid off the ball and to the wing in an offense built on the dribble drive motion. While Washington was free to attack yawning gaps off the dribble, and he stamped his role on his most well-known asset: jump-shooting.
“He’s a really good shooter,” assistant coach Mike Faletti said. “We’re constantly looking to get him some looks off stagger screens, elevator screens, or something of that nature. Those are two of the most common ways, and he really can shoot the ball. He’s got deep range.”
Over The Family’s first 16 games, almost half his shots came beyond the 3-point line, and nearly three-quarters of those attempts were from the wing. Washington knocked in 41 percent of those shots. He also managed to effectively get into the paint, making 31 of 57 shots at the rim. Within the dribble-drive offense, there’s a mantra: We like a 3-pointer, but love a layup. Washington’s shot chart proves he took it to heart.
Washington and Faletti both noted that not all of this 3s were of the catch-and-shoot variety. The Family ran other sets where the combo guard can free himself without the ball. Or they would call some plays where he could use a tight enough handle to get into his shot off the dribble.
“Dribble-drive is just one part,” Washington said. “It’s not just that. I had enough catch-and-shoots, but I was also able to hit a lot of those on dribble pull-ups.”
And as the game evolves to where modern system’s play position-less basketball, Washington doesn’t see himself as a bigger point guard or an average size wing.
“Just go out there and be a basketball player,” Washington said. “The game has changed. There’s no set positions. If you can play, you can play. That’s good for me.”
On film, it’s evident he can attack creases, but it’s not with raw quickness. Washington’s game is controlled, smoothly shifting speeds to slither into gaps. And he doesn’t play with his head down, especially on the first dribble, allowing him to survey his options. Playing with two high-quality big men at Grand Rapids Christian also helped him develop a feel for operating in the pick-and-roll.
“Everybody knew I could shoot the ball well,” he said. “But I don’t think they knew about my passing ability, my court vision, my leadership skills — things that don’t always show up on film.”
Mizzou joined a slew of teams in Iowa State, Butler, Cincinnati, Clemson, Dayton and UNLV to extend offers after the Peach Jam Invitational in July. And on Monday, Washington picked up an offer while on an unofficial visit to Michigan.
Washington is a Mizzou priority, and he’s certainly not a stranger.
Kim Anderson’s staff actively recruited Washington, who has risen to No. 250 in 247Sports’ database. The Tigers got Washington to campus on an unofficial visit last September. A scholarship offer, though, never materialized.
Mizzou wasn’t the only program playing wait-and-see. Michigan State’s interest was strong enough that coach Tom Izzo had Washington in East Lansing multiple times for unofficial visits. In Ann Arbor, Michigan coach John Beilein and his staff also kept close tabs.
On the cusp of the grassroots season, however, Washington’s official suitors remained programs out the American Athletic Conference, Atlantic 10, and the Horizon League.
Washington had to be pragmatic in weighing a question before embarking EYBL circuit: should he bide his time or take an opportunity in front of him? Now, the question isn’t fraught with as much anxiety.
“I was ready when the time came,” he said. “EYBL got here, and I was doing what I do best. And good things just happened.”
Motor City Momentum?
How deeply enmeshed Mann in Detroit? Look at his Twitter handle: @8mileCorn.
Early on, his hiring has been touted for schematic reasons. Installing a version of Iowa State’s pro-style system may be on the docket, but Mann’s deep roots in Michigan may be equally vital.
A native of Royal Oak Township on Detroit’s northwest side, Mann got his start at Oak Park High School. Just as important, though, was his summer job on the powerhouse and Adidas-backed Michigan Mustangs. In 2001, he moved to the college ranks and Central Michigan and later spent time at Western Michigan and Oakland. All total, he’s spent half his coaching career in the Wolverine State.
When he wasn’t working on in-state staffs, he was mining talent for Dayton and — most notably — at Iowa State, luring Monte Morris to Ames and bringing wing Sherron Dorsey-Walker and former big man Percy Gibson back with him to Oakland.
“He’s certainly well-known up here,” said Faletti, who had long stints on the Michigan Mustangs staff and worked as an assistant coach at the University of Detroit. “He’s known for recruiting kids the right way.”
It’s little surprise Mann and Cuonzo Martin have begun working those connections up north. Within two months, MU offered Brown, Marcus Bingham, and Brandon Johns – all of whom decided to stay home. They’re also looking ahead to the 2019 class with offers to top-100 recruits like Rocket Watts and Romeo Weems.
Landing Washington, though, might be critical in tapping Michigan talent. Mann had long been in contact while on Greg Kampe’s staff at Oakland. While fans may not be surprised to see MU extend offers to prospects playing for Bradley Beal Elite or MoKan, Washington is the fourth player from The Family to pick up a scholarship from the Tigers.
“He said he knew wasn’t going to be able to get me while he was at Oakland,” Washington said. “He told me he was going before it was even public. He was really excited about it.”
Mann also has another link to a grassroots program with a long track record of producing high-major talent. His son, Maliq Carr, a 6’6 swingman, plays for the program’s 15U squad, which took home the Peach Jam title last month.
No, this isn’t the first time Missouri has prioritized Michigan, either. For fans of a certain age, Dr. Detroit calls to mind a darker time in the program’s history. Under Quin Snyder, Mizzou extracted key pieces in Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson, but not without running afoul of the NCAA. Lastly, there was the small saga of Wes Clark’s run-ins with Anderson, who dismissed the Michigan native last February.
In recent years, there’s been hand-wringing over the supposed decline in elite talent flowing out of Michigan, but the state is still productive. And Mann has shown he’s capable of using his relationships to coax players beyond its borders. The question now is, if Washington were to commit to the Tigers, would he become an outlier or the first prospect in a stream to trickle south to Columbia?
For their part, Martina and Mann are working hard to make sure it’s the latter.
“I go back and forth with Missouri every day,” Washington said.
‘The whole vibe is different’
Washington cast his decision to join up with Sierra Canyon solely to improve his game.
While it’s unlikely the program will have Marvin Bagley II, a likely one-and-done who is considering reclassifying to play in 2017, the roster will still feature top-flight talents in Cassius Stanley and K.J. Martin. And new coach Andre Chevalier has told Washington he plans to tweak the Trailblazers offense to incorporate principles from North Carolina’s secondary-break oriented attack.
“We’ve got a lot of shooters, a lot of athletes,” Washington said. “It’s going to be fun. We want to get the ball out quick. Whoever grabs the rebound can just go with it. We’re just pushing and kicking it up.”
Leaving behind Grand Rapids Christian isn’t an anomaly in the current climate, either. It’s common for prospects to transfer in search of high-powered rosters and a national schedule, which in many ways is a further expansion of the grassroots circuit. Two decades ago, Washington would likely have stayed home. Now, some attend schools that aren’t schools at all.
Washington won’t be attending a diploma mill. And when asked, he pushes back on the notion he’s bailing on a program he led for three years just to snag more offers.
“I’m really decisive on making my decision during or before the November signing period,” he said. “I’m not going all the way out to L.A. to try and get [offers from] more schools. My intention is to go out there and get better as a player.
“The schools that aren’t recruiting me now either don’t know me or don’t want me there. I’m happy with the schools that I’m with. Everybody wants Duke or Kentucky. That’s cool. But I know the schools that are recruiting me now are great situations for me.”
And that would seem to rule out a late push by Michigan State, too.
“I haven’t spoke with Michigan State in a couple weeks — a couple of months, actually. I’m not bashing them or nothing. We just haven’t talked. They have four dudes and one spot left. And they’re pretty good at point guard.”
On August 1, Washington visited Butler and new coach LaVall Jordan, who recruited the guard while working on Beilein's staff and then during his one-year stopover in the Horizon League at Milwaukee. The Michigan visit on Monday, meanwhile, netted Washington the outcome he wanted, too.
Where Missouri falls into the mix isn’t quite as clear. All signs hint that the Tigers have made Washington a priority. And in the past five months, Martin quickly initiated a rebuild that would make it more attractive than when Washington visited Columbia almost a year ago.
Recently, Jontay Porter has reached out and made clear that the vibe around the program has changed for the better. The desire to see that for himself may entice Washington to take an official visit.
“We went back and forth a little bit,” Washington said of his contact with Porter. “I want to experience that.”