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Early returns on the PJ Washington at center experiment are promising

It isn’t always pretty, but the initial returns have been positive.

Charlotte Hornets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

In the leadup to the season, we heard a lot of talk from head coach James Borrego and general manager Mitch Kupchak regarding PJ Washington at center. Borrego said he wanted to get Washington more time there after he spent the majority of his rookie season playing the 4. Washington was further thrust into that role when starting center Cody Zeller broke his hand in the season opener. The coaching staff clearly doesn’t trust the rookie second rounders yet, so the onus has fallen onto Washington to be the Hornets’ primary backup center.

It hasn’t always looked pretty, and I have numbers to explain why, but it’s actually been more effective than you might think. That’s very promising, especially considering the less than ideal circumstances that have led to the Hornets leaning on this strategy more than they might have otherwise.

So why does it look ugly? Well when Washington is playing the five, the Hornets struggle to rebound. That’s not surprising. Washington isn’t a great rebounder, even for a 4. That’s magnified when he’s playing the 5. With Washington at center, the Hornets grab just 67.5% of their opponents’ misses, which is a little bit worse than the Timberwolves, who are the worst defensive rebounding team in the league. The Hornets are also not very adept at crashing the offensive glass with Washington at center.

As frustrating as rebounding problems can be, all that matters is that the team scores more points than its opponent. The Hornets have done that so far this season with Washington at center, and by a rather convincing margin.

Offensively, Washington is scoring more efficiently at the 5 than he is at the 4. He gets to the rim more often and also gets more open looks from three. The Hornets as a team have been able to get out in transition more (19.2% of their offense), especially off of live rebounds. 35.2% of opponent misses have led to a Hornets transition opportunity, which ranks in the 86th percentile of all qualifying lineups league wide. In all of their transition opportunities, the Hornets are averaging 1.35 points per play, which ranks in the 77th percentile.

On the same token, lineups with Washington at the five have completely eliminated opponents’ transition offense—opponents are averaging 0.62 points per possession in transition. In total, lineups with Washington at center have held opponents to an offensive rating of 100.4, which is the same offensive rating as the league-worst Thunder. They’ve done that by limiting opponents to 47.5 effective field goal percentage and by forcing opponents to turn the ball over on 19.0% of their possessions. Their switchable defense has made it hard for opponents to get good looks anywhere on the floor, and they’ve even done a good job of contesting shots at the rim. Opponents are converting just 59.5% of their shots at the rim, even though they do get their quite often against the Hornets small ball lineups.

In all, the Hornets net rating with Washington at center is +13.1 across 229 possessions. The best of those lineups include Miles Bridges at the 4 and Devonte’ Graham at the point. The pieces in between seem to be interchangeable. Obviously this is a very small sample, but early returns are promising. It’s certainly something worth experimenting with more as the season goes on.