PJ Washington: The Hornets glimmer of hope

The city of Charlotte is scarcely considered a destination, located in the state of North Carolina in the southeast United States. There is little to entice quality players to sign with the franchise, placing the Hornets in NBA purgatory. Who can blame them? From freezing cold winters to the uncomfortable humidity of summer, players are looking elsewhere during free agency.

There are exceptions to this rule; players will consider living in cities with unfavourable weather if it means representing a storied franchise or competing on a contender. Both Boston and, to a lesser extent, New York are examples of franchises who can still draw big-name free agents due to their illustrious history, irrespective of torrid weather. Unfortunately for Charlotte, they are neither historically good nor a contender.

Discarded by free agents and lacking intangible assets, building through the draft becomes the most viable route to success. Intelligent recruitment can alter a franchise’s trajectory, providing the front office has precise blueprints and perform their due diligence. Charlotte is a franchise lacking in both blueprints and a stellar scouting program historically, though – this is the same franchise that traded away the late Kobe Bryant, after all.

When they have been fortunate enough to draft a star, à la Alonzo Mourning, or even a talented player like Baron Davis, their inability to piece together a respectable supporting cast has resulted in that player leaving for pastures new. Couple that with the recent draft night trades of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – and Tobias Harris before him, and the future is looking as bleak as their past.

Enter PJ ‘Pistol’ Washington, the 6’7′ wing out of the prestigious University of Kentucky basketball program. Reaping the rewards of two solid years under coach John Calipari, Washington was drafted 12th overall. Charlotte evidently got their man as they opted to buck recent trends, heading into the new season with their lottery pick still on the roster.

That decision is already paying dividends, with Washington stringing together impressive performances and flashing enormous upside. Predominantly due to his shooting ability from deep, where he’s torching the league from the corner three. Shooting 52 percent from the corners has him placed in the top five percent amongst bigs per Cleaning the Glass.

If he’s not torching defenses out in the corners, he’s busy working them over from the mid-range where he’s shooting 56 percent between the free-throw line and the break. His shooting ability opens up other opportunities on the floor, both for himself and his teammates. For PJ, that opportunity comes in the form of a pick-and-roll offense where his ball-handling and marksmanship gives defenses nightmares.

Defending a shooter is easy, you close out on his air space while trusting your man on the low helpline to vocalize any impending screens coming your way. A shooter who is proficient in the pick-and-roll generates far more problems. Teams are forced to choose between showing or icing the ball handler, which runs the risk of the big man slipping, creating an open lane to the hoop. Or they play drop coverage, betting on the primary ball defender to neutralize the risk of the shooter.

Washington can handle both. If they show, ice or blitz, he has the passing ability to hit the open man cutting towards the hoop. Should they choose to drop or sag, then his shot is proficient enough for him to punish defenses regularly. Furthermore, his height and ball-handling ability lend themselves to the notion of a budding slasher, capable of taking the ball into the teeth of the defense and making plays.

Until the development comes to fruition, his scoring and passing ability still ensure he is a threat when coming off screens. Synergy is tracking him as scoring 46.5 percent in these scenarios, jumping to a respectable 51 percent when adjusting the metric for three’s. If that wasn’t good enough, he’s also drawing shooting fouls on 15 percent of these plays, providing him with valuable opportunities at the line.

As with all offensive-minded rookies not named Zion Williamson or LeBron James, their defense is a work in progress. Washington’s proving to be an exception to the rule, utilising his 7’2 wingspan to contest shots and block passing lanes with surprising regularity.

With Washington on the floor, the Hornets are holding teams to 6.8 points per 100 possessions less. That reduction in points allowed places Washington in the top 8 percent of players across the league, similar to his ranking in the 91st percentile for shooting fouls per 100 possessions. Washington impacts the defense in positive ways already; as he continues to grow and add strength, he will continue to become more fearsome.

Charlotte now seems like a team with a direction. Adding Washington to a roster already containing last year’s draft picks of Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham – while also selecting Cody and Caleb Martin, and Jaylen McDaniels in the same draft – they now have a talented young core to build around, something which has been a long time coming for the fans in Charlotte.

Led by young, outspoken guard Terry Rozier (whom they acquired in a sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics that saw former talisman Kemba Walker go in the opposite direction), the Hornets seem — at least from the outside — to have a plan in place. 

When players around the league see young talent developing the right way, and a culture is being developed, it creates curiosity. People want to be part of something big, NBA players are no different, which is why this cultural reboot is the best possible option for the notoriously bad Hornets.

Drafting a guy like Washington, and Bridges before him, only serves to expedite the process. As they and their young teammates continue to improve, there will be curious glances cast in Charlotte’s direction. In PJ Washington, the Hornets have found a path back to relevancy.