Hornets have a new role for P.J. Washington, but what they need is for him to score

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Rick Bonnell
·3 min read
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Charlotte Hornet P.J. Washington knows he’s missing good shots. He isn’t ducking blame.

Washington is 24 of 76 from the field (32%) and 7 of 31 from 3-point range (23%) in his last eight games. The Hornets are desperately scavenging for offense with LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk injured. Washington is the most logical candidate to raise his game while others get healthy, but he averages just 7.4 points in those eight games.

“I think they’re the same shot opportunities I’ve been getting all year. I just haven’t been making them,” Washington said Tuesday following practice.

“It’s as simple as that — sometimes they don’t go in, sometimes they do. That’s basketball.”

After exceeding expectations as a Hornets rookie, Washington has plateaued this season. He’s averaging about a point less per game than last season (11.5, versus 12.2) and his field-goal percentage is slightly down, but he grabs an extra rebound per game.

While Washington’s output is similar as a year ago, his role is distinctly different. Last season he played the vast majority of his minutes at power forward, and had the ball in his hands a lot offensively. This season, he’s played as much small-ball center as power forward and his touches aren’t nearly so frequent with Hayward and rookie Ball controlling the offense.

That shift has made Washington more dependent on teammates to set him up offensively. His scoring has swung wildly: From a career-high 42 points in a road victory over the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 28 to all but vanishing Sunday in Boston (three points on 1-of-6 shooting) in a 30-point loss to the Celtics.

The 25-24 Hornets are hurting. They are one of just five NBA teams to average below a point per possession in their last three games — two of which they totaled fewer than 90 points total. Monk (sprained ankle) is out at least another two weeks. Hayward (foot sprain) and Ball (broken wrist) are a month or more from playing.

Terry Rozier is the Hornets’ best remaining scorer, and the Celtics double- and triple-teamed him constantly Sunday. There are only three other practical options to pick up the scoring — Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges and Washington — and of those three, Washington has the most room for improvement.

As Washington said, some of that is simply making shots. But it’s also on coach James Borrego to adjust the offense.

Washington will play more center

Borrego plans to use Washington more at small-ball center the next few weeks. Washington has played about 500 minutes at center this season, roughly 40% of his total minutes.

“His number shows it and the film shows it — when he’s at (center), he’s more productive, he’s more engaged, he’s more involved. It’s up to me to find those (center) minutes for him now,” Borrego said.

“I think we’re going to get back to that a little more — playing through him in the post some, a little bit of pick-and-roll.“

Washington welcomes that.

“When I’m at (center), I’m in a lot more ball screens, I’m in a lot more DHO (dribble hand-offs). I have the ball in my hands a lot more than I do” at power forward, Washington said.

No gripes from Washington

Washington isn’t lobbying for how Borrego uses him. He says he’s happy at either center or power forward. But his touches clearly fell with the additions of Ball and Hayward, and now for the Hornets’ playoff chances to survive these injuries, he must become a bigger factor.

“We know he’s capable. It’s my job to put him in position to succeed — to find better shots for him and better matchups,” Borrego said.

“For us to find success the rest of the year, we’re going to need P.J.”