Charlotte Hornets

Why Hornets rookie PJ Washington headed for ‘significant’ role, maybe even a starter

The most interesting — and potentially consequential — thing I’ve heard this Charlotte Hornets preseason:

If rookie PJ Washington continues playing as well as he has demonstrated, it will “significantly” impact the regular-season rotation, coach James Borrego said. Borrego would consider starting Washington, and would certainly play him a lot, if the positive trajectory the former Kentucky star demonstrated the first two preseason games continues.

“I could start him, I could play him off the bench, I could play him at (power forward), I could be playing him at (center),” Borrego said Thursday. “He (offers) a lot of versatility to our lineup if he enters that consistent rotation.

“He’s been fantastic. Plays hard. Understands the game. Makes shots and rolls to the rim. ... .and, defensively, he’s only getting better. Challenging shots and rebounding. He can make a major impact in this rotation.”

The Hornets drafted the 6-foot-7 Washington 12th overall in June. How big could his rookie season be and how will that affect other players’ minutes? That tops reader questions in this week’s Hornets mailbag:

Does Washington have a chance to crack the starting lineup opening night?

Yes, based on Borrego’s comments Thursday, but whether he starts or comes off the bench isn’t necessarily as important as how much he plays. So far, the numbers have been impressive: Washington played 20 minutes in Boston on Sunday, finishing with 16 points and seven rebounds. Wednesday in 20 minutes against the Miami Heat, he totaled 13 points and two rebounds. He has made 11 of 15 shots from the field and 4-of-8 from 3-point range.

Borrego is committed to developing the young guys this season, and if that means shoehorning Washington into 25 minutes per game, he’s prepared to figure that out. How could that look, as far as affecting others in the rotation?

You could see Marvin Williams play more center than he did last season, Borrego’s first as coach. You could see Miles Bridges play some small forward, the position he played primarily as a rookie. Borrego entered training camp leaning toward Bridges playing more power forward than small forward this season.

Borrego has talked often about playing more “position-less” basketball, the idea being to get the best players on the court without being quite so wedded to position labels. If ever there was a time to experiment this way, it’s in a rebuild.

As well as Washington is playing this preseason, do you still see him spending time with the Greensboro Swarm?

Kupchak said on draft night he anticipated Washington playing some with the Swarm, the Hornets’ G-League affiliate. Obviously, if he’s playing a lot, and particularly if he earns a starting spot, there’d be less reason to send him to Greensboro to get playing time.

But I wouldn’t entirely dismiss the possibility he spends at least a little time with the Swarm. Rookies are susceptible to ups and downs, and if his playing time slipped later this season, Greensboro 90 miles away is a great way to get him some minutes. Washington said before training camp he’d welcome time with the Swarm, after seeing how it helped Hornets guard-forward Dwayne Bacon last season.

Do you see any team taking the risk of trading for Nic Batum’s contract in return for a Hornets first-round pick?

Good question that requires a complex answer: I doubt a team would, or in most cases could, absorb the remaining $52 million on Batum’s contract (this season and next, both guaranteed) without sending back guaranteed salary to the Hornets that would be unappealing.

The Hornets would want protection on any first-round pick they dealt to make that happen, in case that pick ends up being top-5 or even top-10. That would probably end a lot of trade discussions.

I wouldn’t give up a first-round pick to move Batum. I’d ride this out the next two season, particularly after general manager Mitch Kupchak told the Observer in September the Hornets won’t look to pursue major free agents anytime soon. They need their draft picks more than they need near-term cap space.

By the way, Batum missed the second half of Wednesday’s preseason loss to the Heat with a sore right Achilles. He’s out for Friday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Winston-Salem.

Who is going to have a bigger role this season for the Hornets, Malik Monk or Devonte Graham?

Preposterous as that question would have seemed a year ago, it’s legitimate now. Monk was a lottery pick and Graham a second-round pick, but they now have comparable status on this roster: Really the only difference is point guard. Graham is playing behind Terry Rozier, who will clearly start, while Monk is still in the mix to start at shooting guard.

That’s more circumstantial than reflecting on either’s value.

Borrego said in September he doesn’t view it as his job to worry about contracts, salaries or how high someone was drafted in determining playing time. As it applies to this question, I view Graham and Monk as young players who haven’t proven themselves yet. Monk and Graham are more similar in situation than dissimilar.

Monk probably has more NBA potential, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Graham lasts longer in Charlotte.

Any young players on the Hornets roster who you could see getting shopped in trade talk this season?

If Washington gets a lot of minutes, that could push reserve center Willy Hernangomez to the fringe of the rotation in the final season of his contract.

In that circumstance, I could see another team offering the Hornets a second-round pick for Hernangomez, and could see the Hornets accepting such an offer.

What should be the realistic expectation for Rozier this season?

That he maintains what he’s done in those first two preseason games: Help set a tone for defense and be as much a ball-mover as a scorer on offense.

I like what I’ve seen so far from Rozier, as far as neither trying to do too much nor too little. This is a new team for him and the first time he’s an NBA starter. There are going to be stumbles along the way, but how he’s adapted is promising.

If he averages 14 points and five assists this season, and shoots 42 percent or better from the field, I’d define that as success.

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