Rookie P.J. Washington may have earned a starting spot with the Charlotte Hornets
About two minutes and 40 seconds remained in the first quarter of the Charlotte Hornets' fourth preseason game, a Monday night affair in Memphis against the Grizzlies.
Like a wide-eyed rookie, P.J. Washington jogged to the left corner and waited for action to develop as Terry Rozier carried the ball up the floor, then dumped it off to Cody Zeller at the top of the key. Zeller handed off to Dwayne Bacon, who flipped the ball to Miles Bridges, who then passed the ball back to Rozier in the same left corner where Washington once stood. But by the time Rozier caught that pass and pump-faked one defender off, Washington -- now looking like a wise veteran -- was sneaking off behind the defense and filling the opposite corner.
Rozier drove toward the basket, drawing two more defenders, and whipped the ball to Washington, who was ready. Wide-open, the rookie from Kentucky swished the corner three.
“They just hit me in the right spot and I just try to finish the play for them," Washington says.
The play was a display of what can happen when everything goes right for the Hornets. Every player touched the ball and they created a good and open scoring opportunity in the first half of the shot clock.
But the play also showed how much progress Washington has made in just a short amount of time. This is a rookie who didn't play in the summer league, a draft selection that many fans bemoaned, a player who faced questions about spending time in the G-League at the team's media day.
In the preseason, Washington has proved his doubters wrong. Sure, the sample size is small, but it's hard to deny how impressive the 21-year-old forward has been. Over five contests, playing an average of 25.4 minutes per-night, Washington has posted per-game averages of 12.2 points, 1.8 assists, 5.1 rebounds and a steal per-game. On 16 attempts, he's shooting 50 percent from three-point range, averaging 1.6 made three's per-game. On all of his shots from the floor, he's made 62.8 percent of his 35 attempts. Washington was the only Hornet to tally double-digit scoring totals in every preseason game.
Forget about the G-League. Washington may very well have played himself into a starting spot for the Hornets when they open their regular season against the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 23. Helping pave the way for that to be possible is an achilles injury to Nic Batum and an illness that fell on Marvin Williams, both of whom can play the four. But even still, the Kentucky product has been remarkable in the chances he's earned.
“I thought he was great (against Boston)," Hornets head coach James Borrego said before the team's preseason game vs. the Miami Heat. "He knows how to play, great feel. I didn’t know much about him until we got him... But he’s been fantastic. Picks things up, high I.Q., plays the right way and can shoot the ball.”
Washington started each of the Hornets' last three preseason games and it doesn't sound like Borrego wouldn't be opposed to giving him the nod against the Bulls.
“I could start him, I could play him off the bench, I could play him at (power forward), I could be playing him at (center),” Borrego told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. “He (offers) a lot of versatility to our lineup if he enters that consistent rotation."
In a league where the trend of playing position-less basketball is growing rapidly, Washington's ability to play power forward and center could be crucial for the Hornets. In addition to being able to stretch out and shoot the three, he's also shown expertise in the pick-and-roll and transition aspects of the game. Washington has also proven to be a capable passer and defender in spurts.
Earlier in the first quarter of that preseason game in Memphis, Washington grabbed a defensive board and started the fast break before laying the ball off to Devonte' Graham. Graham kept stride with Washington, took one dribble, then fed the rookie a low bounce pass. In what seemed like one motion, Washington grabbed the pass and went up with two hands for a slam.
Against the 76ers in Winston-Salem, Washington set a soft-fake screen for Graham at the top of the key, the dashed between two defenders before leaping up to catch a lob.
Also in that game against the 76ers, with Ben Simmons guarding him, Washington dished a no-look pass to Zeller for an easy dunk. It's these types of plays that make Washington look like he's been playing with the Hornets for a decade. The chemistry seems built-in, already.
“One time you tell him and he gets it. Rarely does he make the same mistake twice," Borrego said. "And I don’t know where that comes from – maybe because his father was a coach and he was well-coached growing up. He’s been around good basketball. Some guys just have that natural feel. You just pick things up.”
P.J.'s father, Paul Washington, coached at Findlay Prep in Nevada, a national powerhouse high school program that has produced the likes of Avery Bradley, Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Kelly Oubre Jr.
Washington mostly played the four at Kentucky, but has played a good bit of both power forward and center in each preseason game for the Hornets. He says he's more comfortable at power forward, but he also realizes he has an edge against heavy and stagnant centers.
“I’m pretty comfortable with the sets," Washington said after his 13-point performance against the Heat. "I feel like my natural position is the four, but I definitely like playing center though, because a lot of guys there are bigger and slower than me, so I feel like I have an advantage. Either way, I’m good.”
It's been some time -- perhaps 2011 was the last -- since the Hornets hit a real home run in the NBA Draft. The jury is still out on Miles Bridges and Malik Monk, but Washington, who was picked No. 12 overall this past June, is starting to look like a real steal.
Now, it is preseason, and all rookies are capable of hitting a mid-season slump, but Washington looks like a legitimate NBA talent . If he proves to be that over the next 82 games, he could be the kick-start the Hornets need in their rebuild and someone the franchise can build around for seasons to come.