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2020-21 Hornets season preview: P.J. Washington

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Washington is primed for a breakout season, and the Hornets made the right moves to help

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Charlotte has had one of the most interesting offseasons of every NBA team. They picked up LaMelo Ball, Vernon Carey Jr., Nick Richards, and Grant Riller in the draft and signed Gordon Hayward to a massive, 4-year contract worth $120 million. All of these additions should give Hornets fans something to cheer about, but the most exciting player to watch just may be someone who was already on the team.

Last year rookie P.J. Washington ranked fourth on the Hornets in scoring, averaging 12.2 points per night. Before coming to the league, Washington spent two years at the University of Kentucky under coach John Calipari. During his time there, one of the biggest improvements to his game came from behind the three-point line, where he managed to jump from shooting 23.8% his freshman year to 42.3% his sophomore year. Based on his improvements at the collegiate level, as well as the moves made by Charlotte this offseason, the young forward is primed for a breakout sophomore season.

Out of the 268 field goals that Washington made last season, 84.3% of them were assisted on, including 96.5% of his 86 three-pointers, meaning that he struggles to create his own shot. Diving even deeper into his scoring numbers, out of the four threes Washington took per game, an average of 3.5 of them came in catch and shoot situations. Based on those shooting statistics, it is clear that Washington thrives when he can catch the ball and immediately be in position to score. Whether that’s catching the ball near the rim and finishing or getting open for catch and shoot threes, Washington is best when he doesn’t have to create for himself. Charlotte was in desperate need of more passing, and the addition of Hayward and Ball to the roster means two more playmakers for Washington to play off of.

Hayward ranked third on the Celtics in assists last season, and a fourth of them came off of drives alone. Given Hayward’s larger projected role in Charlotte, this could lead to a nasty drive-and-kick tandem between Hayward and Washington.

As for Ball, he’s projected as the best passer in this draft class with the talent to become a top assisting player in the league. ESPN.com gives high praise, calling him an elite ball-handler, “especially operating out of pick-and-roll” situations, who has the capability to make “magical touch passes.” Considering Washington was the pick-n-roll man in 19.0% of all possessions he was on the floor, converting for a score in 45.3% of them, Ball looks to be the perfect point guard for him.

Not only will these extra playmakers help Washington in terms of finding him on the perimeter, but they will also help him in terms of getting easier shots. Hayward and Ball, in addition to being great passers, can score the ball extremely well. While Ball may not be the most efficient scorer, he’s not afraid to put up shots, meaning the opposing defenses are going to have to account for that. As for Hayward, he shot the ball extremely efficiently last season per usual, meaning defenses are going to have to send extra pressure there, theoretically leaving Washington open for better looks at the basket.

If you look at the way the Hornets roster was compiled last season, none of the guys who scored in volume did so at an efficient clip. In fact, Charlotte ranked dead last in field goal percentage last year (43.4%). With that in mind, bringing in Hayward means the Hornets have a guy who has been an efficient scorer his entire career. Last season he shot 50.1% from the field and 38.3% from deep, and has career averages of 45.1% and 36.6% respectively. Defenses are going to have to work harder to cover Hayward due to this efficiency and the fact that he will immediately be a top scoring option in Charlotte.

Make sure to watch out for Washington’s efficiency making a huge jump, too. Just last season he shot 45.5% from the field and 37.4% from three, both very respectable numbers in the NBA, especially for a rookie. However, he was playing on the worst shooting team in the league, as well as a team that ranked in the bottom third in three-point percentage. While the addition of two main players may not seem like it can make that big of a difference, you’d be surprised.

Just take a look at Hayward’s first full year in Boston (2018-2019) and the impact he had on sophomore players. Jayson Tatum, a second-year player at the time, had an offensive rating of 114.2 while on the floor with Hayward, but an offensive rating of 112.9 without him on the floor. Fellow sophomore Semi Ojeleye’s offensive rating was114.2 while sharing the floor with Hayward, but only 110.5 while Hayward was on the bench. Even looking at last season when Robert Williams was a sophomore, it’s clear that he was better while sharing the floor with Hayward - 125 offensive rating whilst sharing the floor, 109.6 offensive rating with Hayward on the bench. Historically, Hayward has improved the offensive games of the sophomore players which bodes well for Washington going into next season.

So we’ve covered how Washington’s scoring is due for an increase, but what other areas of his game could see improvement? One thing to keep an eye on are his passing numbers, because going all the way back to his days at Kentucky, Washington has looked like an above average passer at the power forward position. A pre-draft report given by William Desautelle III from NBADraft.net raves Washington’s playmaking, stating that his “passing ability stands out for a power forward and he can initiate the offense from the high post and shows advanced court vision for a big man.” Washington even earned praise of his peers, with former Kentucky teammate Reid Travis citing “his leadership, the things that he does on the court for us, [and] the way he can pass” as key reasons to why the team was so successful.

In his two years in college, he averaged 1.5 and 1.8 assists respectively, which while it doesn’t seem like much, was good for top four on the team in both years. Then just last year in his rookie season, he ranked third on the Hornets last year in terms of assists behind Most Improved Player candidate Devonte Graham and five-year veteran Terry Rozier. With new weapons coming to Charlotte, Washington will have more options to pass to, in turn giving him more opportunities to make smart passes and have those passes converted into assists.

As a whole, Washington looks like a guy who could give the Hornets 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists a night as soon as next season. He should easily garner starting minutes having shown great promise in year one, and having little to no competition at the power forward position. The projected starting lineup going into next year is Ball, Graham, Hayward, Bridges, and Zeller, which means plenty of opportunities for Washington to get open looks all over the floor. Washington is primed for a big step in year two, let’s see how big it can be.