PJ Washington’s ‘fantastic’ debut creates a good problem for Hornets

Marvin Williams knows smart and studious.

That’s how he knew Charlotte Hornets rookie PJ Washington would be just fine in the NBA.

Williams isn’t saying every game will be like the first half on Sunday, when Washington made all six of his shots against the Boston Celtics. But he also wasn’t surprised how comfortable the 6-foot-7 Washington looked. Williams noticed how efficiently Washington absorbs and processes information at a time when any rookie could be excused for looking baffled.

“He’s such a smart kid,” Williams said. “He goes through something one or two times, and he’s got it.”

Washington had 16 points and seven rebounds in a 107-106 preseason loss. Coach James Borrego termed the rookie’s performance “fantastic.”

But maybe the best measure of Washington’s debut was a comment he made to Williams when they were both on the bench: Washington told him he expected the game to look and feel a lot faster than it was.

Williams can’t recall a rookie saying that, and he has been around plenty of them in 14-plus seasons. Williams certainly didn’t feel that way with the Atlanta Hawks in 2005, after being drafted second overall that June.

Washington turned 21 in August and spent two years at Kentucky before turning pro. He could have been a first-round pick in the 2018 draft, but the reviews he got from NBA teams were that he could use more refinement on skills, particularly his jump-shooting.

Sunday, that shot was plenty refined — he made three of four three-pointers. Borrego was sufficiently impressed that he ran a play for Washington late in this game. Washington was called for an offensive foul while trying to get position in the lane, but the decision to feature him in itself makes a statement.

Lost summer

The Hornets used the 12th overall pick to draft Washington, despite him not being available to work out. Washington suffered a foot sprain in March while playing for Kentucky, and the pain lingered through the pre-draft process and into the summer.

The Hornets held Washington out of summer league and he wasn’t fully cleared for on-court work until late July.

“I give him a lot of credit (for being so prepared) because he missed half the summer. That’s a lot!” Williams observed.

Washington said it was torturous to watch summer league without playing, but he observed and improved. That’s what his father, Paul — who coached national power Findlay Prep in Nevada — expects.

“I’m a coach’s son; I love studying the game, I love watching highlights. I love watching other people’s games and applying that to mine,” Washington described. “I think the biggest thing for me this year is just to listen to everybody, and apply it on the court.”

Washington showed the kind of progress Sunday that Borrego couldn’t assume when the Hornets left for training camp in Chapel Hill a week ago. That complicates things, but coaches like complications like this kind of complication.

A crowd

The Hornets’ fan base was less than scintillated by the decision to draft Washington. He didn’t appear to have great star power and his skill set and size seemed repetitious; while the Hornets needed a lot of help, they were overloaded, if anything, with power forwards.

If the Hornets are in rebuilding mode, being perfectly balanced by position needn’t be a priority. If they’re at least two years away from playoff contention, then just gather and develop talent. There’s plenty of time later, via trades, to sort out who stays.

In the short run, it will be a bit awkward. Miles Bridges, Williams and Washington are all best suited in the NBA to be power forwards. So is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who might not play much despite once being the No. 2 overall pick.

But each of those three has the versatility to play at least one other position: Bridges played mostly small forward as a rookie. Williams plays some center. Borrego has said Washington might also see time at center.

Borrego just has to figure this out — and that can be a problem.

The kind of problem Borrego wishes he had at every position.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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