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What Phoenix Suns can expect from two-way signee Duane Washington Jr.

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
August 3, 2022

If matching Deandre Ayton’s max offer sheet was the Indiana Pacers’ wound, Tuesday’s Duane Washington Jr. news was undoubtedly the salt.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Washington has agreed to join the Phoenix Suns on a two-way contract, filling one of those two slots for the upcoming season.

Indiana had waived Washington on July 14 to clear out enough cap space to sign Ayton to a four-year, $133 million offer sheet. The Suns immediately matched that offer for their restricted free agent to keep DA in the Valley, and now, just over two weeks later, they’ve scooped up the former Pacer as well.

The 22-year-old point guard went undrafted out of Ohio State in 2021 before joining Indiana on a two-way contract. He got the bump up to a regular contract in April, and not long after the Pacers cut him loose, we listed him as a potential free-agency target to fill the Suns’ final roster spot.

Getting Washington on a two-way contract represents even better value, preserving that final roster spot for either Ish Wainright’s return or another ball-handler to back up Chris Paul and Cam Payne. At the very least, we already know Devin Booker will approve of this new arrival, since they both have roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

After a game against the Pacers in January, Booker said he gave Duane Washington Sr. — Jr.’s father — a hug. The Washingtons are related to Derek Fisher, and Book still remembers the three of them coming to Grand Rapids as the first time he was around NBA players.

“I grew up with little Duane on Indiana,” Booker said. “We were just in Indiana, I linked up with him then, and then he came by the house the night before the game. I’ve been watching him since he was eight years old….so really excited to see his growth, see him get opportunities in Indiana, and I’m pulling for him, pulling for the home team.”

Booker will not only continue pulling for Duane Washington Jr., but now he’ll get to support him as a teammate in Phoenix. The question is, what does the 6-foot-3 guard have to offer?

The basics: Duane Washington Jr. can hit 3s and create offense

Players who produce on bad teams are harder to evaluate. It’s part of why so many basketball pundits were wrong about Devin Booker, and it’s part of what makes Washington harder to judge based on his half-season with a bad Indiana team.

The Pacers’ -5.9 Net Rating with him on the floor improved to -2.5 whenever he sat, but there’s a lot of noise in those numbers considering their high amount of injuries and roster turnover — not to mention the fact that Washington was an undrafted rookie playing on a two-way deal.

But even on a losing team, he exceeded expectations. Washington averaged 9.9 points and 1.8 assists in 20.2 minutes per game in his 48 appearances, and although he only shot 40.5 percent from the floor, he did make 37.7 percent of his 3s, with a whopping 81 of his 173 made field goals coming from downtown. He shot 47.3 percent on corner 3s and 41.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s.

According to Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time, 17 percent of his shots came from corner 3s, which put him in the 84th percentile among all point guards. In other words, he took a ton of shots from the most efficient 3-point spot on the floor, and he made nearly half of them.

However, given his position and the Suns’ need for additional ball-handlers and playmakers, his potential as a shot creator is more interesting. Washington played with the type of confidence that surpasses most normal two-way players, which usually either means one of two things:

  1. He was showcasing legitimate NBA-caliber skills in a few key areas, or
  2. He was taking “irrational confidence” shots on a bad team

How one interprets those two options is a “glass half-full” vs. “glass half-empty” debate, but there’s no question self-belief wasn’t an issue. Washington actually took the third-most shots per 36 minutes on the Pacers last year, and the results could be quite the roller coaster from one game to the next.

As a player trying to stand out on a losing team, Washington was prone to taking the kinds of ill-advised, hair-trigger shots that probably won’t fly in more limited action under Monty Williams. That approach made sense for a guy trying to prove himself on a Pacers squad that finished with the NBA’s fifth-worst record, but on a Suns title contender, he’ll have to straddle the line between irrational confidence and the type of individual shot creation that could actually help Phoenix with the right nourishment.

With the ball in his hands, there’s ample room for improvement as a pull-up shooter. Washington only shot 28.1 percent from beyond the arc on those attempts, and most of them weren’t particularly close to finding nylon:

However, as bad as some of those look, Washington showcased some skills in freeing himself up off the bounce. According to The Bball Index, he ranked in the 79th percentile in 3-point shot creation, which measures a players’ ability to create their own 3-point shot attempts by weighing their field-goal percentage on unassisted 3s and their unassisted 3-point volume per 100 possessions.

Washington wasn’t exactly draining buckets like this on a nightly basis, but considering he only had a 48-game sample size to work with, there were more spectacular step-backs and intriguing instances of self-creation than one might expect:

This will be a recurring theme, so we might as well tackle it now: Duane Washington will make mistakes and do some confounding things, but the foundation is absolutely there for him to become a shot creator for himself and others.

Erratic, sneaky finishes reminscent of another Suns guard

Duane Washington’s biggest make-or-break category will be his ability to finish at the rim. In fact, his triumphs and pitfalls in that area are reminiscent of Cam Payne in a lot of respects.

Like Payne, Washington is a speedy, slightly undersized guard who has no problem getting downhill. Washington ranked in the 84th percentile in rim shot creation and the 89th percentile in percentage of unassisted shots at the rim last year — not far off from Payne, who ranked in the 93rd and 94th percentile in those respective categories.

However, also like Payne, Washington didn’t attack the basket as frequently as one would think based on those numbers. According to Cleaning The Glass, Washington only took 27 percent of his shots at the rim (59th percentile among point guards), while Payne was even lower at 25 percent (53rd percentile).

The reason? It wasn’t a very effective shot for either of them. According to NBA.com, Washington only converted 47.8 percent of his shots around the basket — well below the league-average conversion rate of 59 percent, yet somehow better than Payne’s atrocious 44.6 percent mark.

It’s hard not to think of Payne while watching Washington attack the trees in the paint. Both are incredibly crafty with some of the full-speed scoop layups they sneak past defenders, not to mention the high-arching runners they angle in off the highest parts of the backboard. The ball-handling on some of these moves, including hesitation dribbles, spin moves and reverse finishes, is impressive:

Unfortunately, as artistic as those ambitious teardrops are when they fall, the numbers don’t back up their aesthetic beauty. Too often it felt like Washington did all the hard work in getting himself to the rim but just lacked that last little oomph to finish the job.

Depending on the play, that oomph could’ve been the strength to finish through contact, general body control, touch at the rim, or simply the size and athleticism to convert past taller defenders.

There were plenty of examples where he just flat-out missed makable shots, and that’s saying nothing of how easily and frequently he got blocked at the rim:

The counter to that problem is developing a floater, and like the rest of his game, Washington improved in that respect as the season wore on. But he still only made 38.1 percent of his floaters, and like Payne, he’ll need to prove he can still be effective when defenses run him off the 3-point line and force him to drive.

Room to grow as a plamaker

Those 1.8 assists per game don’t look like much, but they’re selling Washington short due to his lower minutes and his role in Indiana. He’s more of a secondary playmaker, but he flashed plenty of potential in that regard.

According to The Bball Index, Washington ranked in the 91st percentile in passing versatility and the 98th percentile in passing creation quality. Watching back all 85 assists from his rookie year, it was remarkable how many of them were pinpoint feeds on intelligent reads.

Not all of them were flashy like the highlights below, but he routinely displayed an ability to hit the pocket pass, locate rolling bigs or 3-point shooters off penetration, and deliver the ball in a position where his teammate could capitalize:

Learning from the Point God and being in the Suns’ 0.5 offense, Washington should pick up quite a few tricks in the playmaking department. He’s not a primary facilitator, but he doesn’t have to be in Phoenix.

Is Duane Washington a suitable playoff alternative to Payne if the Suns’ backup guard disappears again? That might be a steep ask. Even expecting him to be the third guard might be a stretch, considering there’s still another open roster spot. Filling it with Ish Wainright would make sense, but would James Jones really be comfortable with a 37-year-old Chris Paul being backed up by Payne and a new arrival on a two-way deal?

Maybe not, but Washington is certainly a better prospect than the typical two-way signee, and Wainright proved last year that the Suns are capable of unearthing NBA-caliber rotation players on those deals.

Phoenix still needs a long-term successor to CP3 at point guard. Washington might not be capable of filling those shoes, but finally, the Suns have a young prospect for the Point God to groom up.

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