It was as surprising as San Diego sunshine, but it happened Wednesday. Huskies big man Isaiah Stewart declared for the NBA draft, and the best player to suit up for the Washington men’s basketball team last season is gone for good. His UW teammate, Jaden McDaniels, is expected to make the same announcement at some point, which would leave the two big ones officially done.
Such decisions seemed inevitable when the pair signed with the Huskies before the 2019-20 season, but the results on the court were among the more unpleasant surprises this town has seen between the lines.
And it begs the question: Should the Huskies be done with one-and-dones?
Here is a run-through of the teams Washington has fielded that featured players who left for the NBA after their freshman year (assuming McDaniels makes the virtually guaranteed decision to leave).
2019-20: Stewart and McDaniels. The Huskies go 5-13 in conference, finish alone in last place and lose in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
2016-17: Markelle Fultz. The Huskies go 2-16 in conference, finish second to last and lose in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
2015-16: Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray. The Huskies go 9-9 in conference, finish tied for fifth but lose in the second-round of the Pac-12 tournament and miss the NCAA tourney.
2011-12: Tony Wroten. The Huskies win the Pac-12 title but lose in the conference tournament and do not make the NCAA tourney.
2006-07: Spencer Hawes. The Huskies go 8-10 in conference, finish in seventh place, lose in the second round of the Pac-10 tournament and miss the NCAA tourney.
Some of this is simply bad fortune. It’s hard to be too tough on the Huskies when they win a conference title, as they did in 2012, but miss the Big Dance due to national perceptions of the Pac-12. Also, players such as Chriss and Murray were not expected to be one-and-dones when they came to Washington — they simply exceeded expectations.
And it’s hard to resist players of Stewart’s and McDaniels’ caliber — just as it is with someone such as Markelle Fultz, who went No. 1 overall in 2017. But dare I say that, man … it just isn’t working.
There are essentially two ways to build perennial contenders in NCAA hoops: 1) You load up with young talent like Duke and Kentucky — who might have three or four NBA picks per season: or 2) You build a nucleus that is able to grow together over three or four years the way Michigan State, Wisconsin and Gonzaga regularly do.
Washington has hurt itself over the years by getting caught in the middle — having just one or two freshman phenoms and not enough supporting talent. And while those freshmen will wow the crowds and get scouts drooling from time to time, they aren’t enough to drive the Huskies deep into the postseason, and they leave before the team can jell.
It’s possible that the least-hyped Huskies team of the decade came three seasons ago, after Fultz left and heralded recruit Michael Porter Jr. transferred to Missouri. Washington was coming off a nine-win season, had ostensibly no NBA talent, yet won 21 games and reached the NIT. A year later, a group of seniors (and sophomore Jaylen Nowell) led UW to a 27-win season, a Pac-12 title and its first NCAA tournament victory in eight years.
Then two of the top 10 recruits in the nation joined the team in Stewart and McDaniels, and they finished last. Dead last. You can’t ignore the pattern.
I’m not going to tell Washington coach Mike Hopkins how to recruit. He was at Syracuse when freshman Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to a national championship. And it’s not as though his staff goes after a kid the moment it’s known he’s going to be an NBA lottery pick. Relationships with these student-athletes are often formed years before they sign a letter of intent.
But the one-and-done thing at Washington mirrors Charlie Brown’s placekicking habits. The hype surges through the sky every year, and every year it’s a disappointment.
Passing on the nation’s best players may seem like an impossible ask. In Washington’s case, though, it may be a necessary one.