Nylon Calculus Rookie Review: What did the Hornets see from P.J. Washington?

Even if the NBA regular season is canceled, we’ve seen enough to start assessing the first seasons of notable rookies. What did the Charlotte Hornets see from P.J. Washington?

P.J. Washington announced his arrival in the Charlotte Hornets’ first game of the season. The No. 12 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft played 37 minutes in a one-point win over the Bulls, scoring 27 points and hitting 7-of-11 3-pointers. It ended up being a season-high for Washington and he put up 20 points just six other times across the rest of the season. But even with periods of inconsistency he still finished the suspended season averaging 12.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

The body of his work established him as one of the most productive and reliable rookies in this class but how far ahead of expectations was Washington and what does it mean for his future?

What did we expect?

The Hornets generally received solid draft grades for taking Washington with the No. 12 pick — Sporting News, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated and The Ringer all gave them some variation of a B for the selection. The book on him was familiar — a productive college player at a high-level school whose upside might be capped by the lack of a clearly transferrable role at the next level.

Washington was essentially a full-time 4 at Kentucky but there were questions about how reliable his outside shooting was and whether he would end up as a tweener, not big enough to play the 4 at the next level and not perimeter-oriented enough to really move to the wing. However, in a February scouting report, Trevor Magnotti was excited about Washington’s future on the wing, if unconventionally.

“No everyone can make the transition, of course, and Washington’s quickness may not let him guard 3s at the NBA level. But to completely ignore the potential that Washington’s skill set shows on the wing because of quickness is foolish. More often, the ability to blend quick-twitch athleticism with shooting, touch, and the strength required to operate as a college stretch-4 ends up creating problems for limited small and quick wings, who can’t hope to deny the paint without help to them and get bothered by longer closeouts. Just because he probably won’t be able to defend a Will Barton or DeMar DeRozan on the wing doesn’t mean he won’t be perfectly capable against a majority of the league’s 3s from a physical standpoint.”

As far as tracking his rookie season then, positive outcomes would be him finding a solid niche to contribute and not necessarily getting caught between positional roles on offense or defense.

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What did we get?

The most impressive parts of Washington’s rookie season were not just the implied skill areas he delivered on but the places he showed more than he did in college.

He demonstrated he could be a capable spot-up threat, knocking down 38.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts. He was an excellent transition finisher and, in general, showed impressive touch around the basket — shooting 60.5 percent in the restricted area and doing a nice job finding space on cuts and as a screener in the pick-and-roll.

But on offense, he also showed potential as a more central offensive cog. He’s never going to be a primary scorer or creator but Washington did average 3.8 potential assists per game. Very few of those came in off-the-dribble scenarios but he looked solid at swinging the ball to open shooters, finding cutters from the elbows and recognizing a collapsing defense in post-up situations. Ideally, he’d be able to do a bit more efficient scoring in the post to take advantage of smaller matchups but that could come simply with more selectivity. The Hornets ran multiple post-ups for him every game when that should probably be more of a situational tool.

On defense is where Washington really blew past expectations. Contrary to Magnotti’s assessment, big men were Washington’s primary defensive matchups but he was highly versatile, spending nearly a third of his total possessions on shooting guards and wings and another 20 percent on centers. His positional estimate came out at a neat 3.5 but he was actually used in a much broader range of roles than the halfway point between 3s and 4s would imply.

In addition to his versatility, Washington was actually a surprisingly effective defender. He averaged more than a steal and a block per 100 possessions and was fourth among rookies in deflections per game. He didn’t offer much in the way of rim protection but he was mobile and disruptive enough in other ways that he was viable as a big man defender, all of which added up to a solidly positive Defensive Real Plus-Minus estimate.

The Hornets are in the midst of a slow-motion rebuild, shedding the massive contracts of Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo over the next two years. Washington is not a future star and there still probably isn’t one on this roster right now. But in Washington, Miles Bridges, Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier they have a nice young core of complementary players who can offer versatility and positive contributions at both ends. A star probably isn’t coming in this year’s draft either, but adding a piece like Devin Vassell, Tyrese Haliburton or Onyeka Okongwu would help them build on strengths. They are setting the stage for a fun, competitive team that could pivot towards something more if a foundational piece became available.

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