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Positionless P.J. Washington

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How positioning P.J. put the Hornets in a difficult position

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

There’ve been a lot of basketball doctors on the interwebs (and in the digital pages of a certain city centric newspaper that will go...unobserved) that are diagnosing P.J. Washington with the struggles. His decline in certain statistical categories has been identified as symptoms of a larger issue about his fit on the Charlotte Hornets and his future. This is a false positive. P.J. has not yet mastered the role he plays for the team, But the second year big man’s development has a clean bill of health even if some of the sutures are showing.

Washington came out of Kentucky and onto the Charlotte Hornets roster ready made to be the modern forward the roster sorely needed. A stretch four at the time, stretch five nowadays, created in a lab to receive lobs and hit corner threes. He could run the floor with guards on the break and take the weight of operating in the paint against more traditional bigs. A true outside-in athletic forward to go with Coach James Borrego’s modern quick-decision, fast trigger offense. P.J. Washington’s rookie season made him simultaneously the Hornet’s brightest future and most valuable asset.

P.J. was drafted twelfth overall by GM Mitch Kupchek in the 2019 draft. Tyler Herro, his teammate in Kentucky, went to the Miami Heat right after him at thirteen. Besides Tyler, no other player that went after him has made the impact P.J. has in Charlotte. He started, game one, on a revamped Hornets roster freshly relieved of its all-star franchise player: Kemba Walker. P.J., Miles Bridges, and Terry Rozier, an ex-Celtic whose mindset wasn’t quite clear at the time, proceeded to play inspired if flawed team basketball.

The bonafides are in the numbers that rookie season. 38% on 4 three-point attempts per game kept the defenders honest. P.J.’s quick first step off-ball could catch his defender sleeping on the wing and free him to cut to the basket. And his vertical made the Washington/Bridges trapeze act a must-see attraction.

Watch Andre Drummond have to respect the pump fake on the wing and then get passed on the right like he’s a slow cabby in London, followed by a dunk that swallows the rim whole:

Sure, the reach by Drummond is inexcusable. And when P.J. realizes he has the space, he gathers that ball like he’s loading a cannon. But don’t miss Miles Bridges’ reaction; the shoulder flex that says, “Me, Next.” The 2019 Charlotte Hornets were fun. And before the world shut down and the league entered the bubble, they were hunting for a playoff spot. However, even though the Hornets at times had a better Win/Loss percentage than the bubble bound Washington Wizards, Charlotte did not get an invite to Disney World and the 2019-20 season came to an end.

The 2020 NBA draft was a turning point for the Charlotte franchise in many ways. The lottery gave the Hornets an opportunity. If the Warriors knew that they’d be without Klay Thompson they may have gone with a pass-first guard that would compliment a screen maestro like Steph Curry. If the Hornets went for Wiseman at three then there would be no need for the positional musical chairs P.J. Washington has been playing all season. But, there go by the grace of god, The Hornets got the (likely) ROTY, LaMelo Ball, at the three spot and there’s a lot of questions about who should occupy the paint.

The P.J. Washington At Center Experiment (secret code acronym: PJWAC) has been greatly overstated. Coach Borrego has made it very clear that he chooses Bismack Biyombo as a backup big over P.J. most of the time. Even in close games like the win over Minnesota Friday, February 12th. It was Bis at center getting dominated by K.A.T. in crunch time. Biyombo is the most traditional big to back-up Cody Zeller and it doesn’t matter that the defense and rebounding doesn’t improve when he is in the game. It also doesn’t matter that the line-ups in which PJ plays at center are +21 with Hayward and +12 pp100 without, rivaling even the numbers with starter Cody Zeller though you have to account for the strength of the competition.

Watch it work so seamlessly with LaMelo at the point:

The team is better when P.J. back ups Cody, so why doesn’t Coach JB play him more often at the position? The answer may be found in PJ’s year over year progression. He’s improved a weakness in rebounding to the tune of a rebound a game; 6.5rpg, but the 38% three point shot has cooled to 32%, and careers are made between the high 30’s and the low 30’s in three-point percentage.

But along with the numbers comes a general lack of confidence as the big man on the floor. The bravado is still there, he is still a part of the Hornets culture. But he seems unsure of where to be at times, lost in the sauce as they say, specifically in the half court. Coach Borrego may be thinking of the long-term development of P.J. Washington. What maximizes his talents as a player and as a piece in the overall offense? And are those sympatico? Puting five shooters on the court and seeing how wide Borrego can space an offense makes sense for the present, but does it allow for the growth required to make championship strides in the future? How many questions can you put at the end of a story until the reader realizes you don’t know the answers? The world may never know.