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Does Duane Washington Jr. have the capacity for a playmaking leap?

Breaking down the new two-way player’s best playmaking games as a Pacer to determine his upside in Phoenix

2022 NBA Summer League - Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers Photo by Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns have a “point guard of the future” problem. If the mere fact of Chris Paul turning 37 years old three months ago isn’t enough to wake you up to that, Bright Side’s very own Tom Aizenberg likes to remind me that Paul fell off the proverbial cliff as soon as that birthday came.

Paul turned 37 on the day of game 3 against Dallas in the second round, and here are his stats from games 3 through 7:

9.4 points (7.2 FGA), 3.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 3.6 turnovers in 32.3 minutes per game; team was 1-4 and -49 over the five games — even in the one win, Paul was only +7 in a 30-point win.

The individual stats are quite respectable in a vacuum, but not when you consider the context, like how he’s one of two focal points on the roster and is set to earn $28.4 million in 2022-23.

Enter Duane Washington Jr., who at 22 years old is the youngest player that Phoenix has acquired (beyond a 10-day contract) since Jalen Smith was drafted in 2020. He also happens to play the combo guard spot and showed flashes of real point guard potential dating back to his three years at Ohio State and one year with the Indiana Pacers.

I’m using “per 70 possessions” numbers, which loosely resemble the sample size of an average starter in an average NBA contest. I’ve found that in my scouting work of prospects, it helps to standardize the difference from college to pro.

  • Ohio State freshman season: 2.6 assists to 2.6 turnovers; 600 total minutes
  • sophomore season: 2.4 AST to 2.2 TO; 698 min
  • junior season: 3.7 AST to 2.8 TO; 997 min
  • Indiana Pacers rookie season: 3.0 AST to 2.0 TO; 968 min (85 total assists with an additional 52 potential assists — passes leading to shot attempts that in this case were not converted)
  • Fort Wayne Mad Ants (G League) rookie season (per 36 min; no per 100 data available for G League): 4.8 AST to 2.6 TO; 358 min

There’s a pretty clear upward trend there going from season to season, and as Washington transitions from a bad NBA context to a contending one, it could see even another jump.

Washington has a knack for pulling off some cool bounce passes, especially when he gets downhill and the defense is on their heels:

I quite enjoy plays like this where Washington hits Domantas Sabonis out of a dribble handoff (DHO), since it gives a look different from the more traditional pick-and-roll. Defenses have to prepare for all the moving parts around the big, like any perimeter pieces ahead of the handoff, as well as the downhill aspect of a big afterwards.

It’s worth pointing out that Phoenix was one of only eight teams in the NBA to run handoff plays less than 4% of the time at just 3.9% of possessions; Washington’s former team, Indiana, was tied for 8th-highest frequency at 5.8%, and a lot of that has to do with Sabonis’s presence (he was traded to Sacramento at the trade deadline, and they ended up being the team Indiana was tied with at 8th).

If Deandre Ayton wants to be more actively involved in the offense, he could adopt more of a DHO game himself, for what that’s worth.

Here’s another DHO example, Washington hits an even harder passing angle, needing to wrap around the defender to fit the ball down the lane to Sabonis. He does so without even thinking twice and gets the look as soon as Sabonis is in place... almost like in 0.5 seconds... *eyeball emoji and such*

He also has solid touch on passes inside. Here, he leads Myles Turner right to the rim on a possession that looks eerily translatable to playing with Ayton:

And another downhill example where Washington pushes the pace hard enough that Oshae Brissett is able to sneak behind Mitchell Robinson for the finish.

The Suns struggled as a team to create for others out of penetration, and Washington will help in that department. He drives hard when he drives, and that immediately helps playmaking, evidenced here: well as this pass out of a blitz, another area where Suns guards struggled last year:

There are some obvious obstacles to any leap Washington would make, and paramount among them is volume.

For example, 3.0 assists to 2.0 turnovers per 70 possessions looks pretty good for a combo guard that just finished his rookie season. But even someone like Cam Payne tallied more than three times as many total assists on the season (282 for Payne, 85 for Washington).

I’ll steal a word from that ESPN piece about James Jones and the Suns “ignoring” the draft in saying it’s not that Washington doesn’t have the capacity for a leap; it’s more like there are obstacles standing in the way of him getting that volume of opportunities, let alone being effective in the opportunities.

It’s no secret that there are four or five guards ahead of Washington on the depth chart as things currently stand, and we know Monty Williams isn’t the most liberal coach when giving out development minutes, but it’s that very same context that can force the best play out of Washington, who talked in an interview with PHNX Suns about what it can mean to go from a bad team to a great team:

And now to be going from a bottom-five team to a top-five team in the NBA, it’s like a light switch, blink of an eye. I’m super, super excited to just see how guys operate, see how guys move, follow directions, listen, learn — like, get better, and also be who I am. Just be who I can be, and whatever they ask of me, I’m gonna make sure I give 110 percent and just learn.

A lot of “if’s” go into Washington’s future with the Suns and in the NBA at-large, but there are enough flashes and enough good indicators to believe that in the right context and circumstances, he can blossom.

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