The NBA is a superstar-driven league. After all, team success is predicated on talent, and in basketball, one player impacts outcomes more so than in any other sport.
Fans might love the PJ Washingtons and Cody Martins of the world but when Christmas time comes around, those are not the names they have in mind when they ask Santa for a “Hornets jersey”.
It can be tricky to properly rate these impactful, boring, down-to-earth role players.
Give me nine minutes.
Let me start off with an example that perfectly embodies what a role player should be in my opinion. My favorite show ever is “The Office”. From top to bottom, it’s just a great, great show. It’s not your typical comedy. It’s quirkyish in a way, and you either hate it or love it (also say goodbye to the next thirty minutes of your life).
The show revolves around four main characters: Michael Scott, Jim Halpert, Pam Beesly, and Dwight Schrute. Those are your 4 superstars. The show does not work without them. They have the best arcs and emotional journeys.
But you know who’s your role player in “The Office”? Kevin Malone.
Kevin isn’t an A-List character nor is the given a lot of screen time, but he’s probably far and away the best ancillary member of the show. He’s just Kevin, you know? He’s incredibly charismatic and Brian Baumgartner plays him so perfectly that you don’t really need him to be anybody else but Kevin. He makes the show better but if he wasn’t there would its quality drop off significantly? Probably not.
The four superstars would all still have their arcs. Michael would still find a perfect partner in Holly and move on from the office. Jim and Pam would still end up together after three-seasons of fighting for each other’s attention. And Dwight would still go even with Jim and marry Angela in the series finale.
You could switch Kevin out with anybody and the show would still be good. Would it be as good? Not a chance. But good nonetheless.
Kevin makes the show better. His presence is valuable but not the series’ lifeline.
That’s what a role player does. They improve the team. Even if their efforts go unnoticed to a more casual eye.
That brings me to my original point, role players in the NBA.
More specifically, PJ Washington.
Based on precedent, when we see a player like Washington, we take a look at the best defenders in the world and throughout NBA history and say “well, he can be an elite defender”. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.
Having the tools does not necessarily mean that you’re going to be equipped to use them. If you’re casually watching basketball you might say to yourself “that guy is getting a lot of steals and blocking shots so he is the best defender on the floor”. Our eyes are always drawn to the flashy and big-time play but defense is very often unsexy. Most people want to score. But not everybody wants to play defense because it takes effort and before a player even catches the ball, a lot of that is going on. It’s containing, funneling, talking, taking calculated risks, and first and foremost, making sure that your feet are doing the work first.
Washington is a very intelligent and gifted defensive player. He’s a versatile stud, able to guard and capably switch spots one through five. And we’re not talking potentially either. This isn’t speculating what he could do in the future. Washington is already highly advanced defensively and he communicates exceptionally well on that side of the ball. He’s doing that stuff now and shown no signs of looking back.
He’s quick and nimble enough to pester smaller guards and he’s long enough (7-foot-2 wingspan) to at least make life inconvenient for bigger players. Washington’s wingspan, motor, and defensive awareness, set him up to be a prototypical 3-and-D guy at the very least.
Washington’s outside shot has always been a strength of his. A career 37.5% three-point shooter on high volume is no joke. He’s got a quick trigger release and has had stretches where he got red-hot from deep.
He seems to really like to shoot off the catch going to the left and he can occasionally create his own shot in space at the top of the key.
Washinton defensive genius and his ability to hit perimeter shots will more than likely be enough to help him secure a contract extension with the Hornets. But for him to move to another level, which most fans think he can and I am particularly hopeful of as a holder of his in Fantasy, he will have to develop in creating offense for himself. This could open up a whole world of possibilities for him considering his physical tools.
The more fluid he becomes with back to the basket situations and finding his shot off the dribble, the more indispensable he will prove to be.
Additionally, before he can improve his off the dribble offense, he’ll have to improve the dribbling itself. At times, off the dribble, he looks like an athlete that’s been very well taught but lacks feel. I think it’s really difficult to project whether or not Washington is done developing as he’s been pretty much the same player since his rookie season.
Washington can be anything, as long as it isn’t a star
When thinking about Washington I catch myself wondering how he can become what Michael Kidd-Gilchrist failed to be.
He’s is not a star, and will likely never reach those heights. But he is definitely the type of player that can contribute to winning basketball. He’s one of the most adaptable relevant players in the league. Defensive intelligence, consistent perimeter shooting, rebounding, selflessness, and a real lack of concern about stats, all make him a player that could be an asset for more and less any team.
If you put a high-powered super soaker in my ear (please don’t) and made me bet. No, I don’t think that Washington will be an All-Star type player but do I expect him to play winning meaningful basketball next to LaMelo Ball and a hopefully improved roster at some point in the future? Honestly, yes. I do expect that, because strong role players will never stop being valuable.