After limited role, freshman Nia Washington ready to step up


Freshman Nia Washington directs traffic during Iowa State’s 83-52 loss to No. 2 Baylor. The loss dropped the Cyclones to 12-10 (3-8 Big 12). 

Aaron Marner

The clock was winding down in Iowa State’s 31-point loss to No. 2 Baylor, one Cyclone was still fighting — not just for the team, but also for herself.

With just under three minutes to go, Iowa State freshman point guard Nia Washington drove to the rim and got fouled. She hit both free throws.

The same thing happened at the 1:08 mark. Washington drove. She got fouled. She nailed the free throws.

With under five seconds left, Washington drove into the lane and finished with a runner off the backboard.

To summarize: in the final three minutes against No. 2 Baylor, Iowa State’s freshman backup point guard scored the team’s final six points and didn’t miss a shot.

While most of the crowd at Hilton Coliseum had checked out long before Washington’s strong finish, her performance didn’t go unnoticed.

“At those times I just use it as a learning experience,” Washington said. “Every player on Baylor is really good. They’re at Baylor for a reason.

“It’s just a chance for me to show everyone what I’ve got and show glimpses of the following years.”

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly has singled out Washington and fellow freshman Adriana Camber as two players he would like to play more. So why has Washington been stuck on the bench most of this season? The answer is simple: Iowa State’s backcourt is loaded.

Sophomore Bridget Carleton and senior Seanna Johnson are both in the top five in the Big 12 in points per game during league play. Point guard Jadda Buckley is third in the league in assists. The trio of Carleton, Johnson and Buckley play more minutes than any other trio in the Big 12, and they have combined to win Big 12 Player of the Week six times this season.

“Nia works hard at it,” Fennelly said. “She’s in the gym a lot. Obviously when you’re playing behind Jadda you’re not gonna get a ton of minutes. I think the challenge for her, for any freshman, is the speed of the game, on ball defense, and improve her shot a little bit.

“But she’s quick, she’s athletic, she has a good basketball IQ. I think she’s got a very bright future.”

For Washington, the goal isn’t necessarily to break out this year, and she is aware of that. Instead, her mission is to get better every day so she’s ready whenever the team needs her.

“It’s tough,” Washington said. “But I mean, it’s part of the game. Playing behind them, they’re such great players. I honestly look up to all of them — especially Jadda.

“I just watch her, try to mimic her, because I know that she’s older, she’s an upperclassman. Whenever she does leave, I’m gonna have to step in and fill her shoes.”

While Washington hasn’t had too many chances to prove herself in games this year, Carleton said she’s already seen a lot of improvement from Washington in just one season.

“I think her confidence has gotten better all year,” Carleton said. “She’s improved a lot at being able to score kind of different ways around the basket. Her shooting has improved, being a threat from the 3-point line. She knocked down her free throws when she got to the line.

“She’s gonna be huge for us in the future. She’s a great ball handler — she’s indecisive so you don’t ever know what she’s gonna do with the ball. She has definitely grown a lot in her freshman year and we’re excited about that.”

The performance against Baylor earned an increase in minutes in Iowa State’s next game, a road trip to play against then-No. 22 West Virginia. Washington played seven minutes in the first half of a close road game that the Cyclones eventually won by 25.

The chance to see the floor at West Virginia was something Washington cherished. Washington is from Stafford, Virginia, where her parents still live. They made the trip to Morgantown to see their daughter play. It was just the third time they have seen her play college ball in person.

“It’s great, I know they’re so proud of me,” Washington said. “I’m the first one to play collegiate sports in the family so I know they’re proud of me.”

Washington finished the West Virginia game with three points, two rebounds and a steal in 10 minutes of action.

Washington’s role is a tough one for all freshmen. In high school, Washington said she usually played “almost the whole game.” Washington isn’t just adjusting to a new city, a new school and new teammates — she’s in a completely foreign role on the team, not knowing if she will play at all some games but knowing she has to contribute if called upon.

“It’s tough, but I can’t really worry about that,” Washington said. “I just gotta focus on, OK, if I do get in, I have to do what I’m expected to do.”

Washington’s freshman numbers may not overwhelm — in 19 games this year the freshman is averaging 2.3 points per game — and she may not have ideal size, as she readily admits her 5-foot-7 listing is generous.

“I’m about 5-6.” Washington paused, and added with a laugh, “On a good day.”

But she plays smart. In her last four games, all of which were against teams that were ranked at the time, Washington has just one turnover in 27 minutes.

Washington said her shot making and her leadership are the biggest things she wants to improve.

“As a point guard you’re the extension of the coach,” Washington said. “So if you don’t know what you’re doing, the rest of the team’s not really gonna know what they’re doing.”

While Fennelly hasn’t been able to work Washington into the rotation every game, it’s clear that the focus in on the future.

“She gets a lot of reps in practice and hopefully she’ll continue to develop,” Fennelly said. “I think the offseason this spring and summer will be huge for her, and hopefully what she sees this year will translate into getting ready to go next season.”