Charlotte Hornets

Hornet P.J. Washington doesn’t look like an NBA rookie. Can he be Rookie of the Year?

Rookie P.J. Washington doesn’t seem to grasp how hard this NBA stuff is.

If you’re a Charlotte Hornets fan, hope he never does.

Washington has some kind of Zen. Nothing about the pros gets him too high or too low. He took seven shots in the first half Wednesday. He made them all.

Then, in the fourth quarter, with the Hornets protecting a double-digit lead, he made three of four shots to finish with 23 points in a 118-111 road victory over the Sacramento Kings.

I don’t know whether he’ll end up Rookie of the Year, but I know it isn’t beyond him. Coach James Borrego has used the word “unaffected” to describe Washington’s demeanor. There is yet to be a situation Borrego has placed Washington in that he hasn’t succeeded.

Scoring in the post? Check. Taking 3s? Check. Guard power forwards? Check. Guard centers? Check.

“The NBA is what I thought it would be,” Washington said post-game. “A lot of great players, obviously. Every night you’ve just got to bring your ‘A’ game.”

Just about every night that strategy has succeeded: In four of five games so far Washington has reached double-figure scoring, with two games of 20 or more points. He is shooting 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range. If the man guarding him is big, he stretches that defender out to the 3-point line. If defenders are small, like the lineup the Kings used, he takes them into the post and rumbles.

The Hornets have a history of mediocre-to-bad draft decisions with lottery picks, so a large portion of the fan base panned selecting Washington 12th overall as “safe” and “unexciting.” So far, Washington and the emergence of point guard Devonte Graham are the most exciting things about this Hornets’ season.

Inside/outside

Washington making seven of 11 3-point attempts in the season-opener against the Chicago Bulls was eye-popping. However, it’s what he does offensively in the post that is the foundation of his game. That’s always been a strength, one refined daily over the prior two years by Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne, a former NBA player.

“We did it every day in practice — every day! “ Washington said of Payne’s post tutelage. “As soon as we made it to practice, he’d make us make like 50 of them.”

But it’s Washington’s 3-point range that surprised everyone. General manager Mitch Kupchak said Washington was a mid-range jump-shooter in college, which is an intermediate step, but not of much value in an NBA game where the 3-point line is essential to spacing.

His 3-ball is clearly there.

“I’m shooting it with confidence; I feel like every shot is going in,” Washington said. “If I’m overlooked, I’m definitely taking it. If they don’t have a hand up, I’m shooting it.”

Thinker

Beyond being a shooter, Washington is a thinker. Veteran Marvin Williams, as cerebral as any Hornets player, is constantly impressed with how quickly Washington processes and uses information.

“There are a lot of things you need to teach rookies. With him, you have to teach him half that” because he’s already figured it out, Williams said.

“That’s so rare — a rookie with that much poise and self-control. He’s never really high and never really low, he’s just right here. And he’s very smart.”

That has opened possibilities at a faster rate than anyone could have predicted. Washington’s preseason got him into the starting lineup, and his first week of games has inspired Borrego to tinker with the rotations.

Wednesday, Borrego never played Bismack Biyombo or Willy Hernangomez at center behind Cody Zeller, instead going “small” with combinations of Washington, Williams and Miles Bridges.

Washington and Bridges are similar enough in size that it’s not always easy to use them both to maximum effect. Not every team will play as small in the front court as the Kings did Wednesday. But everything Washington has done so far broadens options.

“That’s a very complete young man, as we speak,” Borrego concluded. “And he’s going to get better.”

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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