Charlotte Hornets

Hornets rookie PJ Washington already looks like a veteran; is that a star path?

Is rookie PJ Washington a big deal this preseason because he so stands out? Or is it because there isn’t much else on the Charlotte Hornets’ roster that gets fans excited?

Some of both, I’d say.

Washington playing so well that he might start the season-opener offers hope at a time when the fan base is still smarting from losing Kemba Walker.

Washington has started the last two preseason games, and coach James Borrego has said he’s open to making the former Kentucky star a regular-season starter. The last time a Hornets rookie started on opening night was Dwayne Bacon, in Detroit in 2017, but that was different. Bacon was filling in for an injured Nic Batum in more of a cameo role. If Washington starts against the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 23 it would be a statement both about him and the direction of Charlotte’s rebuild.

That topic is the first reader question for this week’s Hornets mailbag:

After seeing Washington play several games, what do you see as his ceiling? Is it too early to think he’s the Hornets’ first draft steal since Walker?

Washington’s ability to assimilate information rapidly, combined with his skill set (particularly his 3-point shooting so far), suggest a player who is going to quickly be a contributor and, presumably, a keeper. That does not automatically translate into a future star, like Kemba.

Washington was drafted 12th overall. I did a data-base project with Observer colleague Gavin Off several years ago that suggested after about the 10th pick of an NBA draft there is no direct correlation between where a player is drafted and his likelihood of stardom. So if Washington proves to be a reliable starter, and nothing more, that’s a good use of the 12th pick.

There is no question Borrego is thrilled with what he’s seen from Washington so far.

“He’s athletic, he’s long, he plays bigger than I thought. He gives us size on the defensive end, and IQ at both ends of the floor,” Borrego said of Washington at practice Tuesday.. “Looks like he’s been doing this for a couple of years.”

Everything I’ve seen so far suggests he will be good, and good early. It’s just too soon to say if he’ll be even better than that.

What do you see as Terry Rozier’s projected points-per-game this season? Could it be beyond 20?

I’m less focused on how many points Rozier scores, and more with how efficiently he makes plays for himself and others. Rozier has never finished a prior regular season in the NBA shooting 40 percent or better from the field. This is his first NBA season as a long-term NBA starter. Also, he’s playing with less talent as a Hornet than he did as a Boston Celtic, so opposing defenses figure to be more focused on him.

It would be better if he averages 15 points and five assists, shooting 42 percent from the field, than if he averages 20 points and three assists, shooting 38 percent from the field. Rozier might be replacing Walker, but success shouldn’t be viewed as him trying to mimic Walker. I think Rozier will be a better defender than Walker, but I doubt he will score like Kemba, nor should he aspire to do that this season.

Is there a Hornets player this preseason who looks like he took a significant step, be it mentally, a new tool in his game, or something else?

I think we saw late last season that reserve point guard Devonte Graham’s confidence was growing. I see a yet-higher level of that now; he plays assertively, like a guy who knows he belongs in the NBA, after being a second-round pick two years ago.

There is an old-soul vibe about Graham that suits his organizational responsibilities as a point guard. He needed to shoot more from 3-point range, to complement his play-making (a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a rookie). Hitting back-to-back 3s Monday in Memphis had to feel like progress.

“I definitely have a lot more confidence shooting the ball,” Graham said Tuesday. “Being out on the court more, knowing that I have more of a role and will actually play (every game); last year I didn’t know when I would play or not, and I think that messed with me a little bit.”

Even if Graham is never an NBA starter, I could see him lasting eight to 10 years in the league as a second- or third-string option. He’s smart, mature and low-maintenance, which is valued at any position, but particularly as a reserve point guard.

Of the players with expiring contracts, who could you see them re-signing?

It wouldn’t surprise me if none of the three expensive veterans whose contracts run out after this season — Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo — is back next season. That is less a statement on them than on the youth movement/rebuild taking place in Charlotte.

The most likely player to be invited back would be Williams because he’s a terrific mentor and organizer on the court. But I don’t know how much longer Williams wants to play. He told me last season that his daughter is much more conscious of him being away, and it bothers him to feel he’s missing things as a parent. Williams has made a lot of money over 15 years, and doesn’t need to keep playing for financial reasons.

It would not surprise me if Kidd-Gilchrist and/or Biyombo did a buyout at some point this season, where they’d give back some percentage of their guaranteed salary to be released in time to be playoff-eligible elsewhere.

Do you think Malik Monk will get a longer leash this season?

I assume you mean, “Will the rebuild/youth movement mean certain players will be allowed to play through mistakes more?”

Rebuild doesn’t mean Borrego won’t hold players — young or otherwise — accountable for mistakes. We’ve seen that already this preseason when Biyombo replaced Willy Hernangomez as the first center off the bench. Borrego is holding Hernangomez accountable for his defense, as he certainly should.

Borrego made it clear before training camp started that while he’ll lean in the direction of minutes for the young guys, he’s won’t ignore performance. So Monk or Dwayne Bacon or Miles Bridges will get more opportunities, but there will still be consequences if they screw up.

Is there still any possibility Washington plays for the Greensboro Swarm this season?

Of course there is. An NBA season is six months and 82 games long. A lot changes, particularly for rookies. Don’t assume that if Washington starts the opener, he’s so insulated from ups and downs there would never be cause to have him play with the Swarm.

I think Bacon put this particularly well the day before training camp, when asked about how he benefited from G-League assignments last season. Bacon said many players (and I’d add fans) view a G-League assignment as “punishment,” and that’s wrong-headed. G-League is an opportunity for young guys to play, when the alternative is sitting at the end of an NBA bench, not developing much and maybe losing game-shape.

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