This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Powerful and poised, the playmaking prowess of PJ Washington propelled him to a pleasant professional debut.
Washington was a top-six prospect on our TBW 2019 Draft Board because of his ready-made physicality, ability to defend the 4 or the 5, strong passing chops and shooting upside. He went back to Kentucky for a sophomore season to improve his overall skill.
That decision paid off both in where Washington got drafted, but also how he was primed to make an instant impact.
Washington already possesses hints of being elite in one specific area: He's a fantastic passing big. As a sturdy defender and reliable shooter, his overall skill level will support the development of an elite trait and turn in him into a very valuable player.
Give him the ball in nearly any functional area and Washington can get his teammates open.
Washington made 86 threes in 58 games with the Charlotte Hornets this season, more than fellow rookies RJ Barrett, Ja Morant or Cam Reddish. His ability to play on the perimeter and snipe, whether off the pick-and-pop or standing in the corners, opens up his athleticism when he attacks closeouts.
Most frontcourt drivers will develop tunnel vision and aim at finishing once they get chased off the 3-point line. Conversely, Washington plays under control and makes some pretty awesome passes:
While young Hornets like Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier commandeer the offense, Washington is able to be effective in an auxiliary role. He must find greater consistency as a pick-and-pop shooter (only 8-32 as a rookie) to be an elite scorer on his own.
That said, Graham and Rozier are fantastic shooters off the dribble and draw out defenders that are forced to show them attention beyond the arc. Hedging coverage opens up Washington for a dump-off in the short roll, an area he's clearly thrived.
All he needs is one bounce to gather himself and he'll thrive in the 4-on-3 scenario presented so often. He throws strikes, looks off the defense and is quick at finding the open teammate:
It's been years since the Charlotte Hornets have had a high-caliber center, (no disrespect to the yeoman-but-limited Cody Zeller). Primed to be an effective 4, Washington would be a fantastic pairing with an inside-outside 5-man.
Because Washington can shoot, he's been teamed with finishers who station along the baseline and wait for dump-downs. Some of those passes come from guards who penetrate the lane.
Others come from Washington, who is always ready to deliver a shovel dish into their bread basket off the short roll for a convenient layup:
Washington's court vision clearly makes stationary finishers inside the dunk box better. But what about a big man who can do that and step out? A spread floor could open up more finishing opportunities off the roll for PJ, who was just around league average by any finishing metric.
It could also open up opportunities for him to operate with his back to the basket. A strong 6'8" with a plus-7'0" wingspan, Washington is one of the larger 4s most opponents encounter. But the non-shooting nature of current Hornets bigs like Bismack Biyombo (zero 3-pointers), Willy Hernangomez (22.7 percent) and Zeller (24.0 percent) suck the spacing out of the room whenever Washington operates inside.
There's a whole world of untapped potential for Washington here, an area where he was efficient and sensible in college.
When the Hornets put him in the post, he has the ability to identify open cutters, kickout opportunities or read actions designed around the post-entry for others. He'll read back-cuts and breakoffs of action with ease, all while looking credible as a mismatch scoring option:
While most of those plays also feature one of the three aforementioned centers, the Hornets offense had to hide or utilize those guys during the post-up. They'd either be setting a screen around the elbow above the ball (and cramping a kickout or bringing their defender lower into the lane) or standing on the baseline opposite the ball, hoping for a double team and an open dump down.
A stretch-5 with the ability to step out to the 3-point line would open up so much more scoring for Washington, along with more lanes for cutters to utilize and easier reads for all involved.
Another option, which many teams are heading towards, is something called a Grenade action.
When the ball gets entered into the post, the man with the ball will dribble up towards the perimeter and engage in a handoff with a shooter. The angle is funkadelic and nearly impossible to hedge.
It's a way of creating movement even in a well-spaced offense to offset the muddied waters provided by frequent cutters and screens just above the block.
Good news, Hornets fans: Washington is already fairly comfortable here:
The draft lottery is still yet-to-be-determined, so we have no idea where and, by extension who, the Hornets will draft. With Washington, Graham, Rozier and Miles Bridges as a competent young core, they should look at one of many interior presences who can play inside and out available in the top ten.
It may be hard to imagine, but adding another frontcourt threat would be perfect for Washington. He's already someone who blends into the offense with his well-rounded game and is bred for a versatile, interchangeable offense.
Add a complementary piece like for him to the mix and the Hornets' frontcourt is in great shape for the future.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).