Rui Hachimura: The Story of the Wizards’ Third Wheel

Rui Hachimura’s second season has been solid, yet it’s left Wizards fans wanting more from him. (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Rui Hachimura is a good player. He’s the third-best all-around scorer the Wizards have, and he will continue to grow as his career progresses.

He’s at a disadvantage based on the personnel the Wizards have, though.

It’s a Guard-Driven League

The nature of the NBA – and basketball, in general – is to feature guards. They’re quicker and more explosive than most front-court players, and they tend to be more natural ball-handlers. The league has evolved to the point that some bigger players are able to dribble the ball and be playmakers with more regularity. But even with that stated, check the league leaders in points per game. You’ll see primarily guards near the top.

Photo: NBA.com

Most teams have at least one guard who is among their top two scorers and/or highest-usage players. The Wizards have two, and it’s completely justified.

The Misunderstood MVP

There obviously can be no debate about whether Bradley Beal should be heavily-featured offensively. But there seems to be a disconnect regarding Russell Westbrook, and it’s somewhat baffling.

No, Westbrook isn’t the MVP-caliber player that he was during his prime. But when he’s fully engaged, Westbrook still brings a lot to the table offensively. He won’t always be the most efficient scorer, but that’s okay. John Wall was similarly inefficient and turnover-prone, yet he drew all of the fame and none of the blame. So was Gilbert Arenas – until… you know. And remember the short-lived Isaiah Thomas era? It didn’t work, but he was Beal’s No. 2 for a while, and it made sense on paper initially.

Even with all these perceived warts, Westbrook is averaging just shy of a 20-point triple-double per game. His 42.4% mark from the field is less than ideal, but it’s also skewed by his injury-riddled start to the season.

Add in his turnover rate if you wish, but the fact of the matter is that’s there’s not much to complain about. In fact, his recent turnaround plays a major role in the Wizards winning so many games lately. It essentially all stems back to the importance of guard play in the NBA.

How Does Hachimura Fit In?

Despite its value to the team, the insertion of Westbrook complicates the role of one of Washington’s top assets. The degree to which Hachimura is featured in the offense on a game-by-game basis is forced to be inconsistent, and not exceeding Beal and Westbrook.

So herein lies the question: Is that the only reason why Hachimura is in this position, or is it also a coaching and developmental failure?

Hachimura was selected in the top 10 of the 2019 NBA Draft for a reason. Although he only played starter’s minutes at the collegiate level (no less at Gonzaga, the unopposed powerhouse of the West Coast Conference) for one season, he showcased some undeniable talent. As a Junior, he averaged 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, converting on 59.1% of his field goal attempts and 41.7% of his threes. He didn’t face much high-caliber competition, but there was clearly a solid foundation to work with.

There were many highs and lows for Hachimura as a rookie. In some games, he showcased an abundance of energy and looked like a budding three-level scorer. But in others, he looked overmatched. And very often, he came out strong in the first half before fizzling down the stretch.

On the surface, he’s looked better this year. But statistically, he’s been almost identical.

Photo: Basketball Reference

He looks comfortable in the midrange, especially mid-post. He hasn’t been terrible at corner three-pointers, either, and he pretty consistently runs the court on fast breaks – and often gets rewarded for doing so. But aside from that (including defensively), there’s more development that needs to take place, or maybe his role simply needs to change.

So, why has he stagnated? Has Westbrook’s insertion taken away some of his most optimal opportunities, or is he being misused? Or perhaps, does the onus fall on him?

My personal belief is that Hachimura is essentially Washington’s less-polished version of Chris Bosh in Miami or Kevin Love in Cleveland, among countless other examples. The No. 3 option often becomes somewhat of a misfit, especially if it’s a power forward. But even that comparison falls somewhat flat, because Bosh and Love still outproduced Hachimura fairly handily.

The Brooks Factor

Scott Brooks has been down this road before. Once upon a time in Oklahoma City, Brooks coached a fearsome threesome of Westbrook, Kevin Durant and a young James Harden. Westbrook played largely the same role he does now, as second fiddle to Durant, while Harden was pigeonholed into an awkward role as their third ball-dominant scoring threat. The first two had plenty of success, but Harden was forced to lead the bench unit and never truly developed into his future self under Brooks.

It goes without saying, but Harden has come a long way since leaving the nest in Oklahoma City.

Photo: Basketball Reference

To that end, there have been players who Brooks has coached in Washington who have seemingly underperformed, and certainly not grown into significantly better players throughout their time with the Wizards. The three wing players discussed in my most recent article are great examples, but so are Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky, to name a few, and Brooks’ preference for veterans as opposed to young players – perhaps for that reason – is quite apparent. The recent emergence of Garrison Mathews is a rare exception.

To be clear, Westbrook being favored over Hachimura is the correct decision. It’s simply fair to wonder whether there’s a way to get more out of the young forward – and something other than three-pointers at the top of the key.

A Possible Solution

Brooks has done of good job of staggering Beal and Westbrook’s minutes. Would it be possible to add Hachimura into that mix? That would spread the wealth between them more than it is currently. Here’s an example of what they could try, excluding centers.

  • Q1 12:00–6:00: Westbrook, Beal, Mathews, Bertans
  • Q1 6:00–3:00: Neto, Beal, Hachimura, Bertans
  • Q1 3:00–Q2 9:00: Westbrook, Neto, Avdija, Hachimura
  • Q2 9:00–6:00: Neto, Beal, Avdija, Bertans
  • Q2 6:00–HALF: Westbrook, Beal, Hachimura, Bertans
  • Repeat in 2nd half, unless game situation dictates otherwise

The overall premise, again, is that playing behind both Beal and Westbrook hinders Hachimura’s scoring ability. Therefore, the purpose of this exercise is to see if tweaking his usage fixes that, while also keeping him in either the starting or closing lineup. If the results aren’t favorable, the change can always be undone.

Somehow, Raul Neto playing for 12 minutes straight – aided only by a break between quarters – has withstood the test of time. Nonetheless, this plan ensures that Hachimura would only be on the court with both Westbrook and Beal for roughly 12 minutes per game, while keeping Brooks’ rotation otherwise consistent. In essence, the roles for Hachimura and Davis Bertans would be flipped. In terms of approximate playing times, not much would change.

  • 36 minutes: Westbrook, Beal, Bertans
  • 30 minutes: Hachimura
  • 24 minutes: Neto
  • 18 minutes: Avdija
  • 12 minutes: Mathews

Those totals shouldn’t be the exact expectations, because substitutions typically happen at slightly different points than the ones spelled out above. For example, Bertans likely won’t rise to 36 minutes, and he likely won’t even outplay Hachimura.

The idea of Beal and Westbrook starting games alongside two true three-point shooters seems appealing, and the lack thereof with the second unit at times – in addition to only one of the starting guards being on the court – may free Hachimura up to be a more complete scorer. Even if it ends up not being the most optimal rotation for everyone involved, it should help – and force – Hachimura to grow.

Results Are Inconclusive

Hachimura falls at the intersection of two competing obstacles: the established hierarchy and the Brooks developmental dilemma. Right now, it looks like the answer lies somewhere in the middle of these two variables. And yet, as suboptimal as that is, he’s still managing to be a productive player most nights.

Wizards fans may never know which element is the greater contributor to Hachimura’s inconsistency, and that creates a fun – or maybe frustrating – opportunity for debate amongst the team’s most loyal supporters.

One thing is for sure. The book is far from closed on Hachimura’s career. Whether it’s under Brooks, in Washington or in a completely new situation, his best years are likely still to come.

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