Charlotte Hornets rookie forward PJ Washington represents an interesting case study of what to look for when evaluating an NBA prospect.
When studying Washington, who was selected at No. 12 overall in the 2019 NBA draft, his ascension to representing the United States at the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend in Chicago is particularly fascinating. He has excelled in areas that he was not tasked with while playing in college, an important trait to remember when scouting future prospects. Players are not a representation of what they have done but also what they potentially can do.
So for those who have played alongside Washington, his recent successes have hardly been a surprise considering his dynamic and versatile skill set.
“I’ve been playing against and with him since, like, eighth grade,” Hornets guard Malik Monk told HoopsHype. “I knew that he was going to do this. A lot of people didn’t know he could shoot. But he didn’t have to show that at Kentucky. Now he does because he is a stretch-four.”
During his two collegiate seasons for the Wildcats, for example, the forward hit just 0.7 three-pointers per 40 minutes. Washington then set the record for most three-pointers hit during an NBA debut, connecting on seven baskets from beyond the arc during his first professional regular season game.
“It’s been easy for me because at this level it’s pretty much just reads,” the rookie told HoopsHype. “You’re basically taking what the defense gives you. Obviously, at the beginning of the season, they were giving me three-pointers so I was taking them. But now they are hugged up on me so I drive more and get my teammates involved a bit more.”
The ease at which the game has come to him at the professional level is one of the more recurring themes when talking to Washington, as noted by CBS Sports NBA analyst James Herbert.
His shooting had been one of the most pleasant surprises for Washington, who has shown that the things you can accomplish at the NBA level should not just be projected based on what was shown while in the NCAA. Often, college basketball players play a role based on their coach and system. That does not mean they will end up filling the same type of expectation as a pro.
Perhaps the most key indicators of that for Washington has been his usage in pick-and-roll sets. Before the draft, for example, he was criticized for lacking much “explosiveness in traffic, which means he won’t be much of a pick-and-roll threat to throw down lobs or finish with power.”
As a sophomore in 2018-19, embedded above, the forward actually finished just one possession as the roll man on PnR possessions for Kentucky.
“But he always pays attention to plays and during practice,” former Charlotte forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist told HoopsHype. “He just always wants to learn. As soon as the guy was drafted, he learned how to reinvent himself like a true Kentucky player.”
Monk and former Charlotte forward Kidd-Gilchrist, who also attended Kentucky, explain that the Wildcats don’t run pick-and-roll because head coach John Calipari relies on give-and-go opportunities, running up and down the court for easy baskets.
“He was primarily a post-up guy, elbow guy in college,” Charlotte head coach James Borrego told HoopsHype. “But we’re a pick-and-roll team, so he’s a pick-and-roll player.”
This has been a defining trait for Charlotte as only two NBA teams (Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors) have finished possessions for the roll man in the pick-and-roll more often than the Hornets, per Synergy. Washington has also finished more than twenty percent of his possessions on pick-and-roll plays, a ridiculously big improvement since his final NCAA season.
Borrego notes that Washington fits in well because he can pop, roll and be a playmaker on these possessions. Monk calls him a “triple threat” because of all that Washington can accomplish on these plays.
Washington has scored 2.6 points per game when rolling to the basket in PnR sets, which ranks Top 15 among all players in the Eastern Conference.
“His ability to shoot the ball really stretches teams. They have to figure out what they do with this pick-and-roll. If they switch him, he has the ability to go to the post,” added Borrego. “But he has the ability to roll in that pocket and finish and make plays for others.”
For example, the two-man game between Washington and second-year guard Devonte’ Graham has been one of the more defining traits of the season for the Hornets.
“It is kind of easy playing pick-and-roll with Graham because he is always going to make the right plays. He is taking good shots, finding his teammates. He gets to the rim with ease. All I have to do is set the screen and roll and he is going to make the best play.”
The numbers look good, too, as the Charlotte guard is currently shooting an impressive 23-for-55 (41.8 percent) on his three-point attempts after passes from Washington.
“It’s a dangerous combination: a guy that can shoot off the bounce and a big that can shoot and stretch it,” said Borrego. “He has the ability to roll with Devonte or pop with Devonte. I trust them and think they both make the right decision more times than not.”
Graham, meanwhile, already has 70 assists to Washington so far this season. Charlotte has scored 107.4 points per 100 possessions with both players on the court. That is their second-best offensive rating (minimum: 500 minutes) among all of their two-man lineup combinations so far this season.
Overall, the development of Washington has been a tremendously positive update for Charlotte. The fact that he has been able to step into an offense that runs so many pick-and-roll sets with ease has been especially fantastic.
“He is a dynamic young pick-and-roll player,” added Borrego. “I probably need to use him a little bit more in pick-and-roll.”