As I have scrolled through box scores and watched League Pass as much as I can, someone who has stood out to me is Hornets rookie big-man PJ Washington, who seems to be emerging as a bright young player. What kind of player do you think Washington has the ability to turn himself into?
For a franchise that was starved for young, cost-controlled talent, PJ Washington is a bit of a godsend; the Hornets finally found an impact rookie late in the lottery. Washington is a super versatile player — one that fits with how the league has evolved, and makes sense as a functional postseason player, down the road. There’s star potential here — Washington gives off new-age Paul Millsap vibes if you’re interested in favorable comp — but let’s not get too far ahead here. At the least, Washington projects as a solid two-way starting forward.
Offensively, Washington mostly functions as a space-4; however, he’s used in a variety of ways, despite a lower usage rate: 17 percent. Charlottes looks to post Washington (66.7 FG% on post-ups), especially against switches, and he’s flashed a right-handed hook shot that some may remember from his time at Kentucky.
The Hornets will also play PJ as a small-ball 5, too, working with Marvin Williams (1.14 PPP in 57 minutes), who works as a front-court spacing agent (41 3P% on catch-and-shoots). This allows Charlotte to utilize PJ (15 dunks) as a rim-runner in the screen-roll game, which has been pretty damn good so far — 1.71 PPP on basket rolls for Washington — or as an off-ball cutter. (They will play some lineups with PJ and Miles Bridges as the de facto 5/4 combination, which unlocks some switchy defensive lineups.)
After getting off to a torrid start from deep, opponents have started to key on Washington’s three-ball (48.0 3P% from above the break) — either staying home, using smaller wing defenders on him, or simply running him off the line. In those situations, Washington’s shown some skills to beat a closeout, usually driving left. He likes to look for drop-off or kick-out passes if a second defender pounces on his drive. Developing better ways to counter this type of defense is the proverbial Next Big Step for Washington.
On the other side of the floor, Washington has proven to be an excellent help defender — again, something he showcased at Kentucky. He plays with vision and coordination as a weak-side defender. Washington (1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes) can diagnose sets, sniff out and ignore the dummy actions, and react quickly when needed. So far this season, he’s had some issues on the basketball in space; his first-step defense has been picked on by NBA-level wings. Washington isn’t super quick laterally, though he is smooth and smart. He’s a rookie. Washington will get better here, too.
After an offseason headlined by the departure of All-Star Kemba Walker, the Hornets are entering a rebuild. Obviously, the most important part of a rebuild is acquiring and developing young talent. Washington aside, how do you feel about where Charlotte stands right now in terms of youth on roster?
Of the 15 men on Charlotte’s roster, seven were selected by the team over the last three drafts, including four second round picks. It’s a year too late, but the youth movement is officially happening in the Queen City. Washington looks like an obvious cornerstone going forward, which can (probably) be said about Miles Bridges, too. There are plenty of holes in the second-year forward’s game, especially his off-ball defense; however, Bridges plays with rare athletic ability (71 dunks as a rookie) and a good motor. Miles has shown growth as a shot-creator, too. Bridges has a freewheeling dribble-drive game that’s a little erratic, but produces some entertaining results. (So far this season, 37.5% of his FGA have been 2PA after 2+ dribbles.)
Malik Monk packed on some weight in the offseason, and has had a few good games this season, so far. Monk’s gotten to the rim more frequently (35% of his FGA) and settled for fewer midrange looks. However, there’s a lot of inconsistent play. His decision-making with the basketball comes and goes. On some nights, he spends too much times just standing in the corner. For whatever it’s worth, there’s still future shot-maker potential here; Monk is just 21-years old. At this point, thought, he’s a total wildcard on a night-to-night basis.
Devonte Graham has been a joy this season — 56 assists (8.1 per 36 minutes), 20 turnovers, 41.8 3P% — and the offense really slumps when he sits: 95.1 points per 100 possessions in 141 minutes with Graham on the bench. He’s older than some will think, though; Graham will turn 25 during the season. Regardless, he’s good and a cheap, young asset at the point guard position.
Another important aspect of a rebuild is an organizational buy-in. At all levels, the franchise has to be committed to potentially going through some tough times as they strive for eventual success. Does it seem like the Hornets, who have often been characterized as a rebuild-averse team, will have the patience to see this through, or do you expect them to eventually rush the process?
At this stage of the franchise’s arc, there isn’t too much trust equity when it comes to the organization and those who follow the team. The relationship took a hit with the mismanagement of Kemba’s tenure. (If they weren’t going to pay him close to his 30% max, then he should’ve been traded before the 2019 deadline, or before the 2018-19 season.) The writing with Kemba was on the wall for close to two years: there was no way to build a meaningful/compelling roster around this guy, yet they continued to chase the 7th/8th seed, to no avail.
Since the departure of Kemba and the panicked acquisition of Terry Rozier in that infamous sign-and-trade, Charlotte has said and done the right things. Again, Washington’s arrival has been key. But they’ve talked about harvesting cap space — projected to have $20+ million in 2020, and Nic Batum and Cody Zeller slide off the books in 2021, too — to acquire draft capital (or add young players). That space is a serious asset for Charlotte and, essentially, their best and most realistic trade chip, unless you also think Williams or Zeller could net something marginal in return, too.
Currently, Charlotte owns all of its first round picks going forward, which is critical. This team won’t win many games this season, and if the Hornets get some luck with the lottery, it’s all too easy to project Cole Anthony, Tyrese Maxey or LaMelo Ball on this roster. Add one of those primary creators — or someone in the second tier like Killian Hayes, or perhaps even Anthony Edwards — to pair with Washington and that cap space, and all of a sudden, the framework of a rebuild starts to come into picture. If one of Bridges or Monk pops, even better. Considering how they dragged out Kemba’s time in Charlotte, that’s encouraging.
Thank you to Brian!