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P.J. Washington can save the Hornets’ rebuild

Washington already looks like a draft day steal for Charlotte.

P.J. Washington celebrates after making a shot.
P.J. Washington can be a gem for the Hornets.

P.J. Washington was something of a forgotten man in the 2019 NBA Draft. Though he played at one of the country’s most glamorous programs at Kentucky, Washington wasn’t the type of shiny new toy as a one-and-done that gets most GMs excited. He also labored through a sprained foot late in the season that kept him out of the Wildcats’ first NCAA tournament game and nagged him upon return.

The Charlotte Hornets still believed in his talent. The franchise took him with the No. 12 overall pick, one spot ahead of college teammate Tyler Herro. While some skeptics questioned Washington’s fit with Miles Bridges and the Hornets’ veteran front court, we gave Charlotte an A- grade for the pick.

It took only one game for Hornets to look like geniuses. Washington went off for 27 points on 7-of-11 shooting from three-point range in his first game against the Bulls, in process setting the record for most threes made in a career debut. He was the biggest star of Charlotte’s shocking 126-125 win.

The Hornets hit 23 threes on the night, a threshold only topped twice all last season. They hit 52 percent of their attempts from deep and ruined the positive mojo the Bulls had been building all offseason on the first night that games counted for real.

The Hornets are widely expected to be among the very worst teams in the NBA this season, but their future could be brighter than most expect if Washington continues to develop into a productive stretch big in the front court. It was only one game, but Washington already looks like a draft day steal.

Washington’s progression as a shooter is incredible

Washington was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school who committed to Kentucky as a five-star recruit. In those days, he was something of a traditional big man who crashed the glass hard and preferred to do most of his scoring from the block or on mid-range jumpers.

As a freshman on a team led by classmates Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, Washington put together a productive season (10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds per game), but didn’t have a three-pointer in his bag of tricks. He finished the year just 5-of-21 (23.8 percent) from three. Washington flirted with the NBA draft, but ultimately returned for his second year of school. And that’s when his game really took off.

Washington spent all offseason working on his outside shot, and it paid major dividends. He shot 33-of-78 from three-point range as a sophomore, good for 43.2 percent. Having a reliable jumper unlocked the rest of his game. He went on to average 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and became the primary offensive option for one of the best teams in the country.

Having a three-pointer in his bag changed everything for Washington. It took him from a projected second round to a lottery pick. The best part is there’s so much more to his game than just shooting.

Washington has a complete skill set for a modern power forward

Take this possession from last night. Washington begins by backing down the smaller Coby White in the post. Instead of settling for an inefficient shot, he whips a pass to the corner. Charlotte passes the ball around the perimeter, and it eventually finds Washington in the opposite corner, where he swishes a three.

Washington is an unselfish player with a good feel for the game. He’s still a strong scorer in the paint, though he’s smart enough to know he won’t be able to bully NBA players as easily as college kids. His physical strength also helps him on the defensive end and on the glass.

Washington has always been a powerful player. Now he has the skill to match. He’s the type of building block that can fit into any lineup. The Hornets can put a variety of different players around him, but a power forward who can rebound, bang in the post, make quick passes, and stretch the floor is a valuable weapon to have. His shooting looks like no fluke.

Charlotte has a long way to go, but having a day one rookie starter in Washington immediately pushes the rebuild forward. The Hornets typically aren’t considered one of the NBA’s sharpest teams, but Washington can make them look great if he continues to develop.