Don’t mistake PJ Washington for Zion; the Hornets’ rookie looks like his own star

The Charlotte Hornets didn’t show up Wednesday night for their thriller of a season-opening win against the Chicago Bulls, and by that I mean the Hornets team we all expected didn’t show up.

The Hornets didn’t look like the worst team in the Eastern Conference in this 126-125 victory that wasn’t secured until the clock’s last tick. They didn’t look completely outmatched.

And a lot of that was due to Hornets rookie PJ Washington, who scored a team-high 27 points. He also made more three-pointers (seven) than any NBA player in a career debut. Ever. Think about that for a second. Ever?!

On a Charlotte team that will still be fortunate to win 30 games this season in the wake of Kemba Walker’s messy departure, Washington was tremendous Wednesday night.

“I told you guys,” Hornets Coach James Borrego said to the media afterward, “I thought he had been in the league for two years already. He was great. He was fantastic. He’s a poised young man and he’s only going to get better from here.”

The rookie forward and latest Hornets lottery pick from Kentucky slid into his first real professional game like it was his favorite pair of jeans. He started his first NBA game ever, he made his first three NBA shots ever — all three-pointers — and he had 11 points in his first-ever NBA quarter. By the end of the first half he had scored 17 points, which was the most by any NBA rookie in the first half of a season opener in the last 20 years.

“I’m just excited to be out here, just living my dream,” Washington said, adding he wasn’t aware of the NBA record he set until he did a postgame radio interview. “I was just trying to make shots and just get back and play defense.”

Now it’s not time to cue Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. You can’t call this another remake of “A Star is Born.” Not yet. These were the Bulls, after all, who went 22-60 a year ago and are one of the few teams you could reasonably say the Hornets have a good shot of beating at home.

But these Hornets still had to do that. They did so in an exciting game that gave the crowd of 15,424 — which was about 4,000 short of a sellout — a reason or two to come back.

No Zion, but still

Washington was reason No. 1 Wednesday night. He’s not terribly flashy and you’re never going to mistake him for Zion Williamson as a creative dunker. He’s got some star power, though — making five three-pointers in the first half alone and also coming up with a thunderous blocked shot while playing help-side defense.

PJ Washington tried to block a shot by Chicago's Lauri Markkanen on Wednesday night. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Washington has improved his shooting tremendously since he was a freshman at Kentucky; he made five three-pointers his entire freshman season, then 33 as a sophomore and then those seven on Wednesday night.

The Hornets have suspected for a few weeks now that Washington was going to make a quick impact for them, and the original plan to maybe ship him to Greensboro for some minor-league action now seems laughable (Washington didn’t much like that idea and said he used it as motivation.).

Washington scored in double figures in all five preseason games and made 50 percent of his three-point shots. He was even better on this night, making seven of 11 three-pointers as the Bulls repeatedly left him alone. Other teams will soon decide not to make that mistake.

Rozier fares worse

As for what he would do for a follow-up for this game, Washington said: “I’m definitely going to get some rest. I’m super-tired.”

General Manager Mitch Kupchak extolled Washington’s virtues earlier this week, saying of the rookie: “He’s done some things that I didn’t see in college, particularly shooting the three-ball. I know he increased his range as a college player and he got to the point where he was a good mid-range shooter. ... He’s worked on his game and he has turned himself into not only a big man that can be productive down in the paint, but in our game today he can also make threes. So far, so good.”

Washington made some mistakes Wednesday, too. He lost the ball once on an out-of-control drive, pin-balling down the lane without it before falling in a heap. His rebounding could definitely have been better — he had four — which was the mistake he pointed to postgame when I asked him what one thing he wished that he had done better.

Those mistakes were symbolic of his team, which doesn’t like to use the word “rebuilding” but certainly is. Point guard Terry Rozier had such an uninspiring debut as Walker’s replacement — 2-for-10 shooting and a minus-18 on the plus-minus stat — that Borrego turned to backup point guard Devonte Graham (who was terrific) for all of crunch time. Turnovers continued to be a problem, as they were in the preseason. The Hornets were outscored a staggering 78-42 in the paint.

Still, Charlotte came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and won, with Washington on the floor for almost all of it.

It was only one game, but Washington was really good, on a team that badly needs some really good players to emerge.

“I’ve been impressed with him (Washington) since Day One,” said Hornets forward Marvin Williams, who scored 17 points himself off the bench. “He comes in each and every day and works hard on his game. ... He’s a really smart kid, too. He’s a great addition to the Hornets, for sure.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.