Jason Washburn’s path to an NBA training camp invitation is not uncommon. After going undrafted out of the University of Utah in 2013, the 6’10 center has spent the past two seasons playing professional basketball overseas prior to signing with the Charlotte Hornets this week.
What makes Washburn’s journey unique is before he was invited, he was told he had to leave. Not because he had been traded or was waived; Washburn could not stay on his former team in Ukraine because political unrest made it unsafe to do so.
Washburn didn’t have cause for concern when he signed with the Cherkaski Monkeys of the Ukrainian Superleague for the 2013-14 season. Toward the end of November, though, Washburn began hearing of tensions between Ukraine and Russia in Kiev, located approximately two hours away. Cherkaski had a mid-December road game in the city against Budivelnyk. It was then that Washburn got a firsthand glimpse into the situation.
“My coach said don’t leave the hotel because it’s right next to the square. They said the riots were a couple blocks away,” Washburn told Basketball Insiders in a phone interview. “I remember the team manager went down there to join the riots, but we were advised not to leave.”
Washburn’s family members worried as they watched and read about the happenings on the news. While Washburn said he didn’t fear for his personal safety, he didn’t want to seek out a hostile environment either. He followed the advice of the coach, remained in the hotel until the game and returned to Cherkaski without incident.
“My loved ones were freaking out,” he said. “We (the players) knew that no one was really going to try to hurt any of us Americans because that would create a lot of other problems for them. But at the same time, I [didn’t want] to put myself in a situation where something could possibly go wrong. Cops were getting involved in those riots, civilians were attacking the police. We were like, ‘This really isn’t something for us. We’re just going to keep our heads down.’”
At first, the unrest was hours away from Cherkaski. But as the months went on, Washburn began to feel the effects of the conflicts. Riots began to break out nearby. Then, noises rang out that were too close for comfort in late February.
“One night, things got really hectic, real crazy,” Washburn said. “I was in my apartment and all of a sudden I heard gunshots. It was just, ‘Pow, pow, pow,’ going off on the main street less than a block away.”
Washburn decided the circumstances had become too dangerous. He had grown up in Battle Creek, Michigan where he had seen his own share of problems and he didn’t want to be in a hostile environment again.
“I’ve had more people than I can really count or remember that I’ve lost to jail, death, getting murdered,” Washburn said. “I didn’t grow up in the best of places and that’s not something I want to be party to anymore.”
In addition to his own well-being, his then-fiancee (now wife) had been living in Ukraine with him. He thought ahead to future road trips; he couldn’t leave her at home alone, he decided. He would either ask the team if she could travel with them or if he could stay back for the away games.
Washburn didn’t have to have that conversation. The next morning, the team called him in for a meeting.
“(They) said we can’t pay you anymore – this has really destroyed our economy – and we can’t guarantee your safety,” he said. “We think you should leave.”
“At some point you have to worry about your own safety,” he said. “No amount of money is worth that.”
Last season, Washburn returned overseas to play for Basic-Fit of the Belgium-Scooore League. This summer, he was considering international options, including Poland, when his agent notified him of the Charlotte Hornets’ interest. Washburn is ready to embrace the unexpected turn of events. He believes his overseas experience enhanced his game, as he added new elements to be more than just a low-post player. While he feels strongest on the block, he also has worked on expanding his game to play both the four and the five.
“The European game forces you to grow in a lot of ways because it’s so different,” Washburn said. “Kobe (Bryant) made a statement a couple years ago about how European players are so much more skilled and I’ve got to say I agree with him in a lot of ways. The way the rules are set up over there makes you add another element to your game or you don’t survive.”
As a four-year college player at Utah, he watched Al Jefferson play for the Jazz. He considers Jefferson to be one of the best low-post players in the league. He also admired the career of assistant coach Patrick Ewing and, like most players in the NBA, he looked up to Hornets owner Michael Jordan (whom he met during high school at a Nike Camp).
“If I can get any basketball knowledge out of Michael Jordan, I would be the biggest fool in the world not to take it,” Washburn said. “The man is who he is for a reason.”
The Hornets’ training camp roster currently stands at 18 players. Washburn understands there are only so spots to go around and the numbers game isn’t in his favor. But after the ups and downs of the past two seasons, signing with teams and being forced to leave due to scary circumstances, he is ready to make the most of the time he does have to play for an NBA organization.
“I don’t know the odds (of making the team) and to be honest, I don’t care,” he said. “I’m going to come in here, soak up what I can, play as hard as I can, if I get my opportunity, try to take as best advantage of it as I can and let the chips fall where they may.”
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