SALT LAKE CITY— It's been three seasons since we first saw him at the end of the Utah bench, a gangly kid nearly 7 feet tall, whoopin' and hollerin', waving a towel above his head and acting all crazy every time one of his Utah teammates did something exciting on the basketball floor.
Jason Washburn was a freshman at the time, but he never played because the Utes had a 7-foot center named Luke Nevill, who played 30 to 35 minutes a night and would go on to become the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year that season.
Now in his fourth year at Utah, Washburn has finally earned the starting center spot and is doing his best for what is perhaps the worst team in Ute basketball history. Washburn is the Utes' leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker as well as the best field-goal and free-throw shooter on the team.
But after 31/2 seasons at Utah, Washburn is still a bit of an enigma.
Obviously it's been a tough go for the Michigan native, who is one of the only two veterans on the Ute team and the only tall guy — at least the only one over 6-foot-6 — playing this year. He has smooth moves around the basket and a soft touch on a sweet hook shot.
There are also times when he's nearly invisible out on the court.
Take last Thursday's game against Arizona, when he had all zeroes on his stat line through the first 12 minutes of the game. Then he suddenly scored a burst of baskets and ended up as the team's leading scorer and rebounder on the night with 14 and six, respectively. Two days later in a win over Arizona State, he had eight points and five rebounds the first half, but only two points and one rebound in the second.
Even his coach, Larry Krystkowiak, says "sometimes he'll disappear and not demand the ball," and adds "he doesn't run the floor consistently hard enough, getting back."
And while Washburn's defense has improved this year, sometimes opponents blow right past him for easy baskets. His reputation as a soft player has been hard to live down.
However, Krystkowiak believes Washburn's defense is getting better and says "he's pursuing rebounds a lot better than he has in the past." On the whole, he's pleased with Washburn's "maturity" and overall play.
"He understands our schemes real well," Krystkowiak said. "He's kind of the quarterback, he sees the whole floor and does a good job directing traffic. I'm really pleased with his effort."
Washburn acknowledges it's been tough playing with a diminished cast of teammates this year, particularly without fellow center David Foster.
"When you lose your starting center, a defensive player of the year, people turn to you," he said. "Obviously, it's not what I expected. It's hard playing without him."
Washburn came to Utah in 2008 from Michigan, one of coach Jim Boylen's first recruits. He had led Battle Creek Central to the district championship and regional finals as a senior and was ranked as the No. 86 senior in the nation by Rivals.com.
Only 195 pounds at the time, he sat out his first year at Utah as a redshirt and enthusiastically supported the Utes on their MWC championship run into the NCAA Tournament in 2008-09.
The following season when he got his first chance, Washburn was an instant success in the opening game against Idaho, scoring 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting and grabbing seven rebounds in 26 minutes of action. He looked like a star in the making.
However, it didn't last.
Foster had returned from an LDS mission and was the Utes' starter, going on to become the MWC Defensive Player of the Year. Washburn got two starts and ended up playing just 15 minutes a game, averaging 5.0 points and 2.6 rebounds per contest.
Last year he pretty much split time with Foster, playing 19.2 minutes per game to Foster's 20.3 minutes and getting 13 starts. However, his averages didn't change much, increasing slightly to 6.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.
Some folks figured Washburn might be one of the first people to jump ship when coach Jim Boylen was let go last year. Like Boylen, Washburn was a Michigan native and had been recruited early in his high school career when Boylen was still an assistant at Michigan State.
"I didn't really seek out many opportunities to leave," he said. "I like Utah, I like the campus, the environment, and on a personal level I felt I owed it to this university to stay to give them what I wanted to do."
Washburn also strongly dismisses rumors that Boylen told his players that they should transfer from Utah.
"Coach Boylen never asked us to leave," he said. "I heard those rumors too. Nope, guys left because they wanted to for their own reasons. Personally I don't hold any grudges. They did what they thought was best. Me and coach Boylen were very close. But he never said anything like that to me."
This year, Washburn expected to split time with Foster again and perhaps even play alongside him on the Ute frontline. However, when Foster went down with a broken foot in the Utes' opening exhibition game, it left Washburn as the lone center on the team.
He got off to a slow start this year with a five-point game against Boise State and a four-point game against Harvard. After the latter game in the Bahamas tournament, Washburn had a good talk with the Ute coaches as well as his father and things started getting better.
"It started to click what I needed to do to be more productive, not only just on the offensive end but on the defensive end," he said.
On the season, Washburn is averaging 10.7 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game. But in Utah's four wins, his averages are 14.3 and 7.4.
One thing you can't doubt about Washburn is his genuine enthusiasm and willingness to be a team player. Even though there hasn't been much to cheer about this year, Washburn still gets excited when a teammate makes a great play.
"That's my normal personality," Washburn says of his on-court exuberance. "Off the court I'm the same guy."
Off the court Washburn also serves as a member of SAAC, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, a group of athletes that does community service and organizes campus events.
"We partnership with Lincoln Elementary and we go out and spend time with the kids, go visit hospitals and put together events on campus," he said. "We're just a group that helps athletes give back to the community."
Email: [email protected]
Jason Washburn file
Hometown: Battle Creek, Mich.
2011-12 season stats: Leads Utes in scoring (10.7), rebounding (6.5), field goal percentage (.566), free throw percentage (.722) and blocked shots (15).