Andre Washington left Wake Forest last spring with an unremarkable stat line — 1.7 points and 1.2 rebounds in 67 games over three seasons — and a communications degree.
It was the diploma as much as anything that had suitors lining up to pitch the 7-1, 235-pound center. Not many immediately eligible graduate transfers his size end up on the college hoops free agent market. Especially one with ACC experience and a clean injury history.
Fresh off a redshirt season watching the Demon Deacons, Washington could appreciate the sudden attention. East Carolina completed the sale by showering him with more than anybody else. He figured he’d done enough sitting on the bench.
“I just looked at it as Coach (Jeff) Lebo and the guys made me feel the most needed,” Washington said. “Other schools did, too. I’m not throwing any shade towards them, but there was just something about East Carolina that made me feel the most comfortable.”
Washington has made the most of his opportunity, finally earning the kind of minutes that never came at Wake Forest. The Virginia native has quickly emerged as a key piece at both ends for East Carolina, which hosts SMU in an American Athletic Conference game Saturday on ASN.
“I’m having fun,” said Washington, who is averaging 7.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 23.1 minutes per game. “It feels really good just to be out there and having a sense of purpose and playing with a group of guys who welcome me on a daily basis.”
Washington flashed the tools of an elite defender at times with Wake Forest, but he struggled to put on the muscle needed to hold his own in the paint against ACC competition.
The Demon Deacons had enough front court depth last season that coach Danny Manning could redshirt Washington and let the big man keep developing behind the scenes.
Washington continued practicing with the Demon Deacons but said the impromptu break from games brought perspective. He doubled down on his studies and savored the extra time with family and friends. By the end of another losing season, he was ready to move on.
“I could’ve gave something to that team last year, I feel like, but it is what it is,” Washington said. “I obviously wished I could be out there playing, but I knew I was going to be playing (this) year, so that’s what was kind of always on my mind.”
Lebo had never brought a grad transfer to East Carolina, but he certainly needed a big man. The Pirates totaled just 64 blocked shots on the way to a disappointing 12-20 record last season. He knew better rim protection could go a long way toward improving his club.
Lebo’s recruitment of Washington started with a call to Manning, his old teammate from the 1987 Pan-American Games. The coach couldn’t boast of recent success like Washington’s other finalists Providence and UNC Wilmington, but he had plenty of minutes up for grabs.
“He’s never really been in a situation where he’s been an important cog and having to be good every day, every practice and counted on,” Lebo said. “That’s something that we could sell on at East Carolina.”
Washington kicked off that process two days after his Wake Forest graduation. Since those first summer workouts, it’s been a good match for both sides.
Washington’s second act has brought a new perspective. He’s no longer overthinking on the court with the freedom to play through his mistakes for the first time.
Washington has started every game and leads the Pirates in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. He showcased his full powers in a Nov. 20 win over Stetson, piling up 21 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks.
“I haven’t felt like that really since high school,” Washington said.
Lebo said the 23-year-old has brought maturity to the locker room and enthusiasm to the practice floor.
And he’s been a boon tactically for East Carolina. Lebo has stayed busy figuring out ways to get the big man touches in the paint. Those easy buckets are important for a squad that’s struggled to score at times.
The coach has been able to experiment more defensively with a shot swatter waiting inside. The Pirates already have more blocks as a team in their 9-5 start than all of last season combined.
“Just his presence there at his size – just knowing he’s around there – helps us so much,” Lebo said.
Now Washington’s challenge is to keep it going. He’s already played more minutes than any season in his college career.
Lebo has stressed to Washington the importance of proper diet and sleep and tried to limit his reps in practice to ensure he doesn’t wear down through the grind of conference play.
It’s a concern Washington doesn’t mind after so much time spent watching over the past four years.
“To be honest, I’m just thankful,” Washington said. “All I wanted was just to have this opportunity and have the chance to show what I can really do.”
Eric Detweiler is a freelance writer based in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter at @EDetweiler.