This is the story of two of my favorite college players of the past few years. One is from Florida, the other went to Florida. One is currently in the league, the other is overseas. This is the brief story of James "Flight" White and Darius Washington Jr.
My first memory of the very self-assured Washington came from an Adidas DVD profiling 3 basketball players (Washington, Dwight Howard, and Josh Smith). If I remember correctly, he was getting on Smith for "whining" about something. It was interesting profile, his father seemed very intent that he would do big things with his basketball career. Maybe even to the point where it seemed like he was trying to live through him.
Flight's first appearance on my television came during the 2001 McDonald's All American Dunk Contest. Heralded as the best dunker in the contest and the favorite, White went on to put on one of the best dunk contest performances I've ever seen. The way his slender frame soared through the air would put Clyde Drexler to shame. It almost appeared as if it was too easy. His final dunk, a 2 handed double clutch from the free throw line, sent me out of my seat. Somehow he lost the contest to future college teammate and current New York Knick, David Lee.
Washington emerged the next year as the starting point guard for John Calipari's Memphis Tigers. While not exactly the pure point guard, Washington got the job done. Assisted by teammates Sean Banks and Rodney Carney, Memphis got into the Conference USA tournament with a chance to win an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney. They faced a very talented Louisville team that was one of the best in the country. Washington had his breakout party, keeping Memphis in the game with his 23 points and 6 assists, but it was the points that he didn't get that left a lasting memory. Down 2 with 6.5 seconds left, Washington drove the length of the court and launched a desperation 3 as time expired. While the shot was off, he baited Francisco Garcia into a foul. A freshman steps to the line for the biggest moment of his career. Three shots win it, two shots tie it. The first drops and Washington turns to his coach in typical Washington fashion, as if to say, "I got this." The second one bounces off the rim, and Washington looks visibly shaken. The final shot to send the game into overtime falls just short, and almost simultaneously Washington falls lifelessly to the ground.
James White's career got off to a solid start at Florida. He averaged 6.2ppg coming off the bench. After the season, White decided to transfer to Cincinnati to play for Bob Huggins. Throughout his career, according to many, White never quite lived up to his potential. DraftExpress called him, "One of the biggest enigmas in college basketball over the past five years." Despite the criticism, White did average 16.3ppg, 5.1rpg, and 2.0apg his senior season, leading Cincinnati to the NIT.
Although Washington claimed the events of the past season didn't hurt his confidence, his sophomore campaign showed little improvement. His scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and FG% all took a hit. Despite his struggles, Memphis amassed a 30-3 record (thanks to the emergence of Rodney Carney and rookie Shawne Williams) on their way to an elite 8 loss to eventual champions UCLA. With Carney and Williams both deciding to bolt for the NBA, Washington followed.
It was the 2006 NBA draft when their paths finally crossed. Washington was coming off a less than impressive season and was projected as a mid-late 2nd rounder. James White was regarded as an older player who still had potential and was projected as a late 1st-early 2nd type of player. The first round came and went, with neither of their names being mentioned. But with the 1st pick of the 2nd round, the Indiana Pacers selected James White. 28 more picks went by, yet no mention of Washington. The Detroit, holding the final pick in the draft, ended up taking another PG (Will Blalock) undoubtedly leaving Washington disappointed once again.
The story could end right here. White had made it, Washington didn't; but nothing in life is that simple. Despite a solid performance during Summer League, the Pacers decided to part ways with White on the eve of the season due to a plethora of guards. Washington's NBA dreams weren't over just yet. Dallas picked him up during training camp, and played a few pre-season games for them. Unfortunately for him, they decided to let him go. Washington ended up being a top pick in the NDBL draft, but decided to go overseas and make more money playing for PAOK Greece. White eventually landed on the Spurs roster, and was sent down to the D-League, to the same team Washington was supposed to play on.
At this point, I had forgotten about Washington. I thought he was done in terms of NBA opportunities. I thought White was a steal for the Spurs, with White being trained to be another defensive stopper. Turns out, I wasn't so accurate. White did eventually get called up and showed promise for the Spurs. They even started him on the last game of the season, a game in which he scored a career high 17 points. The next summer came around, but there were no ravings about White's potential. Instead, there was criticism that White still hadn't improved his game. He ended up a free agent shortly after the NBA draft. Washington on the other hand, used took his experience from overseas and came back to make another run at making an NBA roster. Coincidentally, the one team that took a chance on Washington was White's former employer, the San Antonio Spurs. Washington had a very solid pre-season performance, including an 18 point, 9 rebound, 8 assist explosion against the Golden State Warriors. The final cuts came down, and Washington was not on the list. In fact, Washington made the active roster.
James White is now playing EuroLeague basketball for a Turkish team. Darius Washington is now the 3rd PG on the Spurs roster. With the injury to Jacque Vaughn early in the season, Washington saw extended minutes as a back-up. David Thorpe of ESPN.com even rated him as the 8th best rookie 2 weeks into the season.
As a fan of both players, I want for them to succeed and play in the NBA. They could both be completely unknown in a year, but they both got the opportunity. It just seems as only one of them capitalized on it, for now...