NEW ORLEANS — If Duane Washington Jr. is having a bad day, it would be impossible to tell on the basketball court. The undrafted rookie, who played at Ohio State, has an indomitable spirit and a certain levity that he brings to his craft.
He’s there every time he wins a shooting competition at a Pacers practice, ringing the celebratory bell so cheerfully and obnoxiously that everyone in the gym can’t help but notice. He is present in the enthusiasm he exudes from the bench whenever his teammates make a good play, cheering them on as if he were the only fan in the arena.
He’s also featured in less routine ways, like the time he accidentally bumped into Bulls mascot Benny the Bull during pregame warmups on Dec. 26, and they shared a light-hearted moment. Or perhaps the most recent time, Monday night, when Washington, who was making history, passed a ball to a young girl sitting near the field at halftime, encouraged her to fire it as she stood there in shock and splashed a 3-pointer to his astonishment.
“Things are going to get really, really tough, and life can throw a lot of things at you at once,” Washington said, explaining why he interacted with this fan. “So for me, (I try) just to find joy in the little moments, the little details and the little things. Keep your head up, so (you) don’t get driven crazy by the hard things, so ( i) just keep a smile.
“It’s not fake. It’s not forced. It’s real.”
Washington’s zeal for basketball coupled with his relentless work ethic culminated in a shooting display Monday that rewrote the Pacers’ record books. Indiana fell 117-113 to the Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center, but not before Washington drained seven 3s, the most ever in a single game by a Pacers rookie. He passed 1987 Rookie of the Year Chuck Person and fellow current rookie Chris Duarte, who both made six 3-pointers.
“I knew Chris had (tied) the record earlier this year. (Monday) I was there just letting go and I didn’t know I had broken a record,” Washington said. “I’m super grateful for that now, but I’m going to give (Duarte) some tough love when we get on the bus and bust his chops a bit.”
Washington drilled three of its first four 3-pointers, all in the second quarter, then closed the game with four 3s in the final frame. He scored all of his career-high 21 points from long range, shooting 7 for 12 from behind the arc.
Washington’s fifth 3 gave Indiana a 95-92 lead with 7:05 left in the game, but the Pelicans responded with a 9-0 run to regain the lead and hold on as Washington drained two more 3-pointers on the stretch.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said he appreciates the resilience of his Washington-led team. The 6-3 guard rebounded from a scoreless 0-for-4 shooting performance in a loss to Phoenix on Saturday to become the 36th rookie in NBA history to make at least seven 3s in a game, according to Tony East of Forbes.
“For an undrafted guy with a two-way contract, he’s doing a tremendous job and he’s an opportunist,” Carlisle said. “He’s really taking advantage of his opportunities.”
Carlisle described Washington as “always ready” and “always on,” the latter compliment addressing Washington’s mindset more than his skills.
“He’s got a real grateful vibe,” Carlisle said. “Every day he comes in with a smile on his face, a very positive outlook on the world in general and he loves playing basketball. He loves working to be a great teammate and he plays the game very pure.”
Washington said his positive outlook came from his parents, who always raised him in his youth, as well as naysayers who never thought he would make it to the NBA.
Monday’s contest marked the 16th game of Washington’s fledgling NBA career and it was his best yet.
“I try to carry on (what my parents taught me), bring confidence, bring joy and believe in myself.” Washington said. “At some point, a lot of people aren’t going to believe in you, so you gotta keep your mind straight. (I’ve) been through a lot, so keep learning every day and just be me.”
Washington’s historic night against the Pelicans capped off the Pacers’ five-game trip to the Western Conference. But of course, he couldn’t leave Smoothie King Center without taking a moment to smile and soak it all up while encouraging those around him, including this halftime girl, to do the same.
“Congratulations to her, man,” Washington said. “She just looked thrilled to be at the game, and (I love) spreading the love among the young people, and I hope this experience can allow her to play basketball one day maybe. For my benefit).”