For the majority of his first two years in the NBA, PJ Washington was the starting power forward for the Charlotte Hornets. With Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller as the men in the middle and veterans who commanded frontcourt minutes, there wasn’t much playing time available at their position, so he would slide in next to both in head coach James Borrego’s rotations.
In the latter half of Charlotte’s 2020-21 season, Borrego pivoted to matchup-based decisions on who to start at center, and for 12 of those games, it was Washington. As our resident film-breakdown brainiac Nekias Duncan so masterfully detailed, it led to a stretch of success for both the player and the team. Less than a week into the new campaign, it’s been more of the same, as Washington has played the vast majority of his minutes at the 5. And though the early individual numbers haven’t looked to par in the box score, it’s ended up being quite beneficial on each end.
"I feel like I'm a mismatch at the 5 position. I feel like I'm a lot quicker, shoot better than a lot of 5s, so for me, it's great on the offensive end,” Washington told BasketballNews.com prior to Charlotte’s 123-112 win in Cleveland.
“He's been good for us there at that spot last year. Our numbers with him last year at the 5, it's been productive, it's been good,” Borrego said. “He's a problem matchup-wise at the 5 when he can shoot it, put it on the floor, outrun guys... We want to take advantage of him offensively, that's why he's out there at the 5. But he's holding his own defensively and he's on the board, he's active, he's talking. He looks comfortable to me. He looks to be in a really good place mentally, which to me, trumps anything. We're talking about whether he plays the 4 or the 5. Mentally, he's in a great place."
Speaking with a Hornets staff member, the team really put an emphasis on Washington making plays as a hub of the offense, whether that’s keeping it moving in the half-court or finding guys in the trail during transition opportunities.
"It's easy for me. I've been a playmaker pretty much all my life, so just being at the 5, I think that opens up our offense,” Washington said. “It's a lot harder for teams to guard us. I mean, they've got to match up with us. And especially if there's a big guy out there, it's hard for them. So I think it's good for us... [My focus over the summer was] ball-handling and being able to pass the ball. That's big in my role at the 5 obviously. I'm in a lot of ball-screens, dribble handoffs, so just being able to make plays especially off the bounce."
And if there’s any question of whether or not the 6-foot-7, 230-pounder can hold up against the bulkier, taller competition, ask Domantas Sabonis. In Charlotte’s incredible comeback win in its season-opener at home over the Indiana Pacers, Washington stood his ground and forced Sabonis into a tough, contested fadeaway miss when the All-Star tried to post him up to make a game-winner.
“He's gotten better. He showed in that Indiana game he can battle against the bigs. [Against] Sabonis, he was out there battling,” Borrego said. ”You look at the last possession of the game, he was the guy guarding Sabonis to close that game. The biggest stop of the game, he was the one staying in front of Sabonis, didn't give ground, great verticality, great challenge. I loved his effort there defensively... I thought he battled his tail off on the boards against a big, physical Indiana team. He didn't give in.”
“I feel good. I think at the end of the day, it's all about toughness and the will to want to,” Washington said. “I don't like when people score on me, so I mean, I'm good down there... I've been in the weight room a lot more this offseason. I'm really confident in that [strength] aspect and been working really hard."
To address the loss of Cody Zeller to the Portland Trail Blazers in free agency, Charlotte brought in veteran Mason Plumlee. Coupled with the signing of Kelly Oubre Jr., it meant tough rotational decisions were coming. The Hornets decided that Washington could be utilized as their backup big man, meaning the Kentucky product would be a significant spark off the bench.
“There's been no resistance there. He wants to win,” Borrego said of Washington’s willingness to embrace being a part of the second unit. “He understands there's only five guys you can start. If I could start six, he'd probably be the sixth. But right now, we're gonna go with this rotation, and I'm confident if he has to start at some point, he can start. He fits both lineups. He just provides so much versatility for us."
“I feel good. For me, it's the same thing. Just come in with that attitude,” Washington said. “You already know what the other team's doing coming off the bench, so just come in with the right mindset and just try to be good on both ends coming in."
Thus far, it has worked quite well. According to NBA.com’s lineup data, Washington is a part of Charlotte’s top three-man unit (min. 15 minutes) featuring himself, Oubre and Gordon Hayward with a colossal plus-46.9 net rating. Granted, advanced figures are going to be extremely noisy this early in the year, but the fact that Washington is a part of the next four best combinations that the team has speaks for itself.