As Minnesota lacks depth, Isaiah Washington struggles to fill gaps

Washington has shot 32 percent from the floor and 18 percent from 3-point range this year.

Guard Isaiah Washington looks to drive towards the hoop at Williams Arena on Sunday, Nov. 19.

Jack Rodgers

Guard Isaiah Washington looks to drive towards the hoop at Williams Arena on Sunday, Nov. 19.

Jack Warrick

Minnesota’s popular guard is going through something many players on Minnesota have dealt with early in their collegiate careers — a struggle to adjust to Division I play.

Heading into this season, the Gophers received a commitment from New York’s Mr. Basketball, a top-100 recruit — Isaiah Washington — and so far he has shot 32 percent from the floor and a team-low 18 percent from 3-point range through the first 20 games of his freshman season.

Head coach Richard Pitino has seen this before. Pitino compared Washington’s situation to the Gophers season two years ago when young players had to step up and get minutes.

“I equate it to when Nate [Mason], Dupree [McBrayer] and [Jordan Murphy] two years ago were in the game,” Pitino said. “And as painful as it was at times, it was helpful to them in their growth.”

Murphy, before he earned All-Big Ten Freshman honors, was held to single-digit scoring totals his first five games. McBrayer averaged just 5.9 points per game in his first season. Mason’s first year was the only time he averaged less than double-digit scoring totals in college.

With two Gophers starters out — Reggie Lynch suspended and Amir Coffey injured — Washington has had more opportunities to display why so much hype has been generated around his name.

He played only two minutes in the Gophers win at Penn State on Monday after starting the game before. Freshman Jamir Harris got his first start and tallied a career-high 16 points — 10 of those points coming in overtime — in the Gophers first win in four games. Washington’s lone contributions were one turnover and personal foul at Penn State.

In the 81-47 loss against then-No. 5 Purdue, Washington led the team in scoring with 11 points. It was the first time Washington had led the team as Mason struggled to find his game.

“These are all great learning experiences for [Washington],” Pitino said. “He’s just a freshman. [Harris], same thing. [Michael Hurt], just a sophomore, so they’re getting some good quality reps in difficult play. They’ll learn from it, and I think [Washington] will. He’s got a long way to go.”

The Harlem, New York native is the co-creator of the JellyFam movement: a group of young basketball players from the same area in New York and New Jersey who do a signature layup. There is also a clothing line of the same name inspired by the group.

Washington and his group have attracted national media attention and the Minnesota guard has more than 500,000 Instagram followers. Minnesota hopes his level of play will eventually be equal to his popularity.

“I think he’s doing a better job making plays,” Murphy said. “I think that as the season went on he’s done a good job maturing his mentality and his mindset, just making sure … to make the right plays, make the right shots.”