Season Recap: PJ Washington Exhibits Poise, Confidence in Standout Rookie Season
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The Charlotte Hornets selected forward PJ Washington with the 12th overall pick in last June’s draft hoping to get a franchise building block. It took all of just one regular season game to prove those aspirations were likely going to come to fruition.
Washington erupted for 27 points and seven three-pointers as the team’s Opening Night starting power forward against Chicago, setting a new franchise record and league record, respectively, for a player in his NBA debut. Two nights later, he recorded his first double-double and the rookie hype train was fully in motion.
“I told you guys I thought he had been in the league for two years already,” Hornets Head Coach James Borrego said to the media following Washington’s first game. “He was fantastic. He’s a poised young man and he’s only going to get better from here. It’s his job to continue to grow. He’s going to see different defenses every night, but I’m excited about what we see so far with his maturity out there, his poise, his decision making.”
The 21-year-old Washington’s three-point shooting, two-way playmaking, physicality and overall maturity translated quickly from the collegiate to professional level. He averaged 12 points on 48 percent shooting (41 percent from three), five rebounds, two assists and a steal in his first 28 appearances before a broken finger sidelined him for five games in mid-December.
Upon return, the Kentucky product immediately rolled off five straight outings with at least 14 points, while shooting 53 percent from distance in the process. He eventually partnered with Devonte’ Graham and Miles Bridges at the Rising Stars Challenge at NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago, becoming the first Charlotte rookie to receive this honor since 2013.
He finished off his first season by averaging close to 15 points over his final 11 games, a stretch that included consecutive 20-point showings against Denver and Houston from March 5-7. Amongst rookies who made at least 40 appearances this year, Washington ranked 10th in scoring (12.2 PPG), third in rebounding (5.4), ninth in assists (2.1), eighth in steals (0.9), fourth in blocks (0.8) and eighth in three-point field goals (86).
“I think this season was huge for me,” said Washington. “I learned a lot from guys like Marvin [Williams], our veterans and even young guys like Devonte’, Miles and [Dwayne] Bacon. I think it was just a big learning experience for me. Playing all these games and playing against such great competition every night, I think it just got me a lot better.”
Washington’s body of work has him in the running for NBA All-Rookie First-Team honors, something that hasn’t been bestowed on a Charlotte player since Emeka Okafor in 2005.
“For me, I just try and play my game and play within the team,” he added. “I feel like I did a good job with that this year. I’m just trying to get better. To be recognized by the whole league is pretty cool for me. Devonte’, Miles and I all going to the Rising Stars Challenge was definitely fun. The season’s just been fun for me, honestly.”
“We did not know that PJ Washington would bounce out of training camp and be a starter and have the season that he had,” said Hornets President of Basketball Operations and GM Mitch Kupchak. “Most rookies have to find their way and it takes a couple years.”
Borrego added, “You look at this year, I think we maximized our [development] program and we got better in that Devonte’ Graham was the 34th pick in the draft, Miles and P.J. were 12th picks. We’re not talking about top-two or top-three picks – we’re talking about 12th picks. PJ Washington should be First Team All-Rookie this year.”
When asked, Washington stated his defense was the skillset that improved the most throughout his first NBA season. He ranked third on the team in defensive rating over the final eight games (107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), a number that stood at 110.5 in his previous 50 appearances.
“At the beginning of the year, I don’t think I was guarding as well as I was towards the end,” he explained. “I think I just bought in a lot more. On every outside roll, I was definitely helping my teammates. As a team, guys were just taking defense a lot more seriously. We were buying in and didn’t want teams scoring on us. It was fun guarding teams and locking them down.”
The upcoming offseason will be a bit longer than normal, allowing young players like Washington ample time to continue finetuning their game for this Hornets squad.
“For me, I’m just trying to do good things on the court whether it’s defense, rebounding,” he stated. “I try to impact the game any way I can, even if my shot isn’t falling. I just try and stay valuable in every aspect. [I want to focus on] my playmaking and my ball handling. Those will be big for my game. That’s what I’ve been working on and I’m going to continue working on.”