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FILM STUDY: Would PJ Washington give Brooklyn the Stretch-4 it’s longed for?

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First in a series of pre-draft film studies Reed Wallach is putting together.

Kansas State v Kentucky Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

There’s much talk of this Draft lacking high-end talent outside of Zion Williamson, and to a lesser extent the top 3. While partly true, the 2019 Draft does pick up in terms of value towards the end of the lottery, where playoff teams can pluck some useful players. In the words of one draftnik, the middle of the first round is “flat.”

For Brooklyn, they don’t need to worry about this issue and can use their two first rounders – along with the first pick of the second round – to plug in the holes in their roster. The Nets under Sean Marks have thrived picking at the back half of the first round and into the later stages of the Draft, this is actually the highest pick Marks has used as GM of Brooklyn at 17.

In terms of needs, while the Nets had a stellar year, the team needs to shore up the front court with a true stretch-4 and a backup center to develop behind Jarrett Allen —and as insurance in case Ed Davis is not long for Brooklyn.

Lucky for the Nets, the Draft is deep on useful, athletic fours that should be littered around the middle of the first round where Brooklyn is picking. Every prospect has his flaws but there are some guys entering the league who the Nets can use, but also who they needn’t rush right into the rotation. The Nets rebuild has been based on finding talent, developing them and keep them healthy. Some prospects will need more work than others because of need or physical issue.

So in the mock drafts, the Nets have often been linked to PJ Washington of Kentucky who may very well be there at 17 and who can complement the Nets well as an inside-out 4.

Washington opted to return to Kentucky for his sophomore season to further develop his game and help Kentucky reach deep in the NCAA Tournament. Washington saw an uptick in usage in his second campaign and a refined skill set.

He flashed an emerging three-point shot with sound mechanics this year as well. In his freshman season, Washington took 21 three’s all together, making five. However, this past year he shot 33-of-78 from beyond the arc. According to The Stepien, 44 of those three’s were from beyond the NBA three-point line, where Washington hit on 20, an uber-efficient 45%. As a spot up threat this season, Washington scored 1.1 points per possession, which placed him in the 85th percentile, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

Washington does bring the ball a bit far down on his three-point shot, making his release slower than what an NBA team would want, but his ability to stay straight up and down on his release, along with the growth of it from year to year at Kentucky shows positive signs. Washington shot 66% from the free throw line this past season, up from 60% the year before, which isn’t great, but it is the manner in which he got to the line that is encouraging.

Washington uses his 6’8”, 230-pound frame to initiate contact and get to the stripe. He had a free throw rate of a shade under .49 this season. So, for every field goal Washington is taking, he is earning one free throw. This is a strong indicator of Washington’s impact on the floor, that he is able to draw fouls and get to the line where he shoots fine, if maybe a bit under par, but has shown signs of developing. This number will drop at the next level, but is encouraging nonetheless. His free throw also looks the part with a fluid release and no noticeable hitch at the top.

Washington’s ability to be a threat beyond the arc is a useful sign for his NBA prospects. He’s not the biggest guy at 6’8” but what he does lack in actual height is his length and his strength. Washington measured with a 7’2.25” wingspan at the Draft Combine a few weeks back. He has a strong post up game, which may not translate completely to the NBA that has somewhat done away with that part of the offense but is a testament to his touch from short range that can be used with him as a short roller.

While the defense may be stronger in the NBA, this play showcases that Washington has the ability to take a dribble or two and finish moving down hill. Below you see him catch the ball just inside the three-point line and going downhill for a finish over Grant Williams of Tennessee. Williams, while he may not have a great wingspan for a pro prospect, is a physical defender that Washington uses his wingspan to go over the top of and finish.

These types of matchups may not be there for Washington at the next level, but he’s able to catch and finish over players with his broad wingspan. The second example showcases Washington, in a crowded paint, catch on a short pick-and-pop and finish over Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6’11” senior. Watch how high Washington finishes over Williams, the LSU defender never could even jump to meet Washington at the high point.

Washington has a knack to find the ball whether it be in transition (more on that in a bit) or on the offensive glass. 30% of Washington’s total rebounds this season came on the offensive end.

It wasn’t the toughest offensive rebound, but in this clip, you can see the strength on display for Washington. He follows his own miss by grabbing the ball, coming down, and finishing in between two defenders for an easy put back. Washington uses his length to run the floor as well. Off of a rebound, Washington is looking to find his guard and run. This was a notable play from Kentucky’s near victory over Auburn in the Elite Eight:

Washington is an effortless jumper who is always a threat if not marked in transition.

In short, Washington has showcased an inside-out game at Kentucky that can fit very nicely in Brooklyn. He is a threat to stretch the floor when playing alongside the likes of Jarrett Allen who can be the rim running big in the pick and roll, he is most accustomed to while he parks out behind the arc and crashes the glass. He has a solid skill of finding and finishing around the glass, which could counter act some struggles that have plagued Nets big’s in recent years. Moreover, he’s not afraid to initiate contact and get to the line. Washington has a big frame coupled with a long wingspan that makes him a weapon moving down hill to go up and over some defenders.

Washington’s elite bounce has also made some serious contributions on the defensive end of the floor during his time in Lexington. It’s not an exaggeration that he saved Kentucky’s season.

Washington was out with a sprained foot during the first two games of the NCAA Tournament and made his return to the floor in the Sweet 16 against Houston, where his rotation over from the weak side to stifle a drive led to Tyler Herro’s game-winning three. The heroic Herro play (pun somewhat intended) doesn’t start if not for Washington.

While the sophomore came up big when Big Blue Nation needed him most, injured and all, this big time play does mask some flaws in the play itself as it translates to the next level. Washington definitely sold all the way out on making this block, even leaving his man wide open to cut towards the lane, but his instincts anticipating the drive and selling out for the block shows how easily he gets off the ground even on a lame foot. And while the athleticism of the play should be noted, so should the need for improved instincts rotating from the weak side.

There are places where Washington needs to develop on the defensive end. Despite having great attributes to carry him to being seen as a plus defender, Washington will need to refine his game. He has the length to bother guards in the screen-and-roll as he has the length and foot speed, but there are times when he gets switched onto a guard, that he is not in a defensive-ready stance and can be beaten by quicker guards at the NBA level. This has to be a point of emphasis for Washington moving forward.

In the above clip, Washington has the length to contain Lamonte Turner of Tennessee, but if Turner had more confidence in his dribble, which most NBA guards will, he would have taken the flat-footed Washington off the bounce to the rim. Turner settles for a three which Washington is easily able to contest with his wingspan, but in the NBA he can get burned if he is not in a better stance off the switch. Washington’s off-ball awareness isn’t always there. During the course of a game Washington is caught sleeping a bit with his off-ball help.

Reid Travis gets switched onto the smaller, much quicker Louisville guard and does not have the speed to hang with him. Washington, again flat footed and guarding his initial man, must give more of an effort to close that path to the rim, and be prepared to recover to his man if the ball is kicked. In this case he has Jordan Nwora, a capable three-point shooter so it is necessary for him to focus on his man, but the priority has to be stopping the ball and recovering after Louisville gets a relatively easy bucket here. In the NBA, Washington’s off-ball tendencies must improve. The ball will move much faster and he will need to be quicker off of his feet.

Indeed, Washington is caught flat footed and is too slow to respond to the offense. Watch below, as Washington is not in a ready stance and gets his feet tied up which gives Grant Williams a head of steam going to the basket.

Williams ends up dishing out, but Washington is behind the play. Washington will be 21 by the time next season starts, so its not all over for him and these are definitive flaws in his game, but his instincts in the pick-and-roll and being one rotation over needs to develop as he moves forward in the league. While a play like the one I started with highlight his ability to find the ball and make a big play, those plays will not be common in the NBA. Washington doesn’t project as a rim protector, but rather a lengthy four that can be able to switch onto guards while the primary defender recovers, and he can get back. But then too much of this happens:

Washington gets lost in the pick-and-roll coverage and shows a high foot funneling Nwora to the right side, where there is no help waiting in the back or to the side. Nwora has a runaway for lift off.

It is clear that Washington needs work on the defensive end, but the signs are there and he can excel on offense. This whole sequence shows where Washington can feast ... when the game spreads out. There are those may question his foot speed, but his length and improving instincts has to make teams comfortable with his upside on this end.

Finally, a look at him going up against another potential first round prospect, Naz Reid of LSU. Washington plays good help side defense and stays straight up as he alters the shot. He then outmuscles Reid for the rebound and is eyes-up going the other way.

While his defense isn’t all the way there yet, very few prospects are the finished product by the time they get drafted. Washington’s ability to alter shots with his 7’2+” wingspan, and in turn clean the glass with his large frame make him an intriguing prospect as a defender.

Right now, he may be a bit slow to stay on quicker 4’s that look to score, but Washington can bang with some of the girthy one’s and maybe even unlock a small ball 5 with his blend of size and strength. And on the bright side, he doesn’t have to be all the way there yet on the defensive end. What is great is that the tools are there for the Kentucky big to thrive as a two-way threat at the next level with great size, strength and all-around game. The jump Washington made from year one to year two at Kentucky was fantastic, but does not mean that it has to stop there. A similar jump can come in the NBA as he continues to refine his outside shooting and become more adept at defending the pick-and-roll.

There is a good chance that a team takes Washington earlier than 17 and all of this scouting may be left in the dust for the Nets faithful, but mocks have Washington all over with some linking him to the Nets a few weeks back.

Washington helps Brooklyn get the stretch 4 they have been looking for while adding toughness to their front court. Washington may very well be a top 10 prospect in this draft and while he may not have the high ceilings others do, At worst, he’ll likely carve out a solid career for himself as a role player. The Nets are picking at 17, so they can take some chances, but in an enigmatic Draft, it may be best to go with more of a safer pick that Washington presents.