PJ Washington Takes on New Position, Makes Strides with All-Around Play, Versatility

by Sam Perley

Despite an offseason between his first and second NBA seasons riddled with uncertainty, Hornets combo big man PJ Washington followed up an All-Rookie campaign by showcasing improvements in just about every significant statistical category this year.

Across 64 games – all but three of which were starts – Washington averaged personal bests in scoring (12.9 points), rebounding (6.5), assists (2.5), steals (1.1) and blocks (1.2) for Charlotte this season. His field-goal percentage dropped a touch to 44.0%, although he took half a three-point attempt more per game while seeing his efficiency rise to 38.6% in this area and from 64.7% to 74.5% at the charity stripe.

“I think for me, I have a lot of room for improvement and obviously, I want to make a big jump next year,” said Washington, when asked to reflect on his season during exit interviews. “I think it’s going to help the team if I do that and the team needs me to do that. I have to put in a lot of work this summer and I’m really excited to do that and get better.”

Heading into the year, Head Coach James Borrego planned to slowly incorporate Washington into more small-ball lineups at the five, although the timeline for this sped up when Cody Zeller broke his hand on Opening Night. There were some initial, expected growing pains going against bigger, more physical players, but the Hornets ultimately saw a lot of success with Washington at the center position, which he helmed for 46% of his on-court minutes.

“[Playing small] definitely prepared me for the future,” he said. “Playing the five, four or wherever I need to be, being able to be at different positions and do different things is big for me. I just need to get better at each and every area where I wasn’t really good this year. For me, it’s going to be a lot of work and I can’t wait to see what happens next year.”

He added, “Before, I felt like I was a true four-man and now, I just feel like I’m a player. I can play any position out there no matter what it is. Whatever the team needs me to do, I can go out there and do it. [It’s about] being true to myself, as versatile as I can and doing everything on the court, whether it’s blocking shots, rebounding, guarding the big man, guarding a guard, being able to shoot threes, scoring at the rim.”

Washington’s 10 double-doubles were more than twice as many as he accounted for as a rookie and his 11 20-point performances trumped his 2019-20 total by four. His best stretch came over a 13-game span from April 18 to May 11 in which he averaged 18.9 points on 50.8% shooting (45.6% from three) and 6.7 rebounds. He also became the youngest player in franchise history to record a 40-point game following a career-high 42-point outburst in Sacramento on Feb. 28.

Like nearly every other player on the roster, the disappointing manner in which the season ended for the Hornets hasn’t sat particularly well with Washington, although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the long run.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of motivation for us,” he said. “Obviously, we lost six in a row and we felt like we should have won a couple of those games. For us, it’s going to be fuel for the fire. We have a lot of room for improvement and we all know that. We all know we can get better in different areas. I can’t wait to see what the season has in store for us next year.”

Washington, who made major strides with his post scoring, playmaking and defense, has already pinpointed the individual areas he wants to focus on this offseason. “For me, it’s about being able to create off the bounce – that would be big for my game. Being able to find others, finish at the rim, I think all that will really open up my game a lot on the offensive end.”

All in all, though, it was a hugely successful season for Washington, especially considering his new positional role and the unsettled, longer-than-usual layoff last summer – something that shouldn’t be as much an issue for the 22-year-old heading into the 2021-22 campaign.

“Obviously last offseason fighting with COVID, we pretty much didn’t know what was going on,” he recalled. “The gym could be open or closed, guys working out in different places. I think this year, just having a schedule and having structure is going to be great for us. Knowing when guys are going to be here and knowing when we can come train is going to be great. I’m really excited about it and to get the process going. Just get better each and every day.

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