The Charlotte Hornets’ most skilled player is Gordon Hayward. Their most dazzling player is LaMelo Ball. Their best player in the final two minutes is Terry Rozier.
But their X factor?
That’s P.J. Washington.
If Washington plays relatively well, as he did Thursday, this Charlotte team will make the playoffs. If he doesn’t, they won’t.
On a team that too often lacks for defense, rebounding and rim protection, the 6-foot-7 Washington can provide all of those when he’s on. He had 20 points and 9 rebounds in Thursday night’s 105-102 win over Washington, leading the team in both categories. It was a very good game for Washington in what has been a scattershot second season.I think he’s motivated right now, I’ll put it that way,” Hornets coach James Borrego said of Washington afterward. “On the court, in the weight room, in the training room, he’s focused right now…. The scoring is one thing, but the defense, the rebounding, the activity — that ‘s what we need every night. If he plays at this level, he takes our team to a different level.”
Those quotes are way more positive than the ones Borrego offered in mid-December. Borrego is one of the nicest men in basketball, so it was startling when he went all Larry Brown on Washington and ripped the second-year forward from Kentucky in the preseason.
Close observers of the team believe this was the most directly critical Borrego has publicly been of any Charlotte player. Indeed, the third-year coach almost always goes by what your mother used to tell you: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”
Not that time, though. Borrego said then of Washington: “He’s got to play better. He’s got to be in better shape. We need him to peak out this season. He’s just not there right now.”
And: “You can blame it on the short (training) camp, you can blame it on our style of play. But it is what it is: He’s got to play better, bottom line.”
For Borrego, this qualified as an outburst.
Washington seems to be more focused in lately, but he’s still been on-and-off this season. He had a 42-point game. He followed it with a three-point game. also had a five-game stretch where he never scored more than six points in a game.
Sometimes Washington is everywhere. Sometimes you have to check the “minutes played” after a game to remember whether he was in there at all.
Washington has to be more than that. He was the No. 12 overall pick in 2019, and if you only rated players by what their NBA debut looked like, he would crush LaMelo Ball. Washington hit seven 3-pointers in his first-ever NBA game, which was a record for any NBA player in his first game ever. He started and scored 27 points that night. Ball didn’t start in his first NBA game this season, and he scored zero points.
But Ball is now about to become the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, and Washington… well, it’s hard to tell. Washington wasn’t available to the media after Thursday night’s game, which improved the Hornets to 18-18. But Rozier was asked if he had spoken to Washington about how much the team needs him.
“Definitely,” Rozier said. “You don’t want to be on (younger teammates) too much in this league. He’s a professional for a reason. Sometimes, you’ve got to learn on your own, but we definitely are encouraging him to be him. He’s a great player, and we need him a lot.”
Yes, they do. To have a chance, they need him badly.