When the NBA ground to its sudden halt in early March, the timing wasn’t all that bad for Rui Hachimura. The Washington Wizards’ first-round draft pick had just recently waded back into NBA waters after missing seven weeks because of a groin injury, racking up 16 games before the league pressed pause. The first 12 of those 16 games went perfectly well. It was the final four where things got a little thorny.
In those final games before the hiatus, Hachimura looked every part the rookie hitting the wall. The forward endured one scoreless game against Miami, another against Atlanta in which he scored only from the free throw line and averaged just 6.5 points across the four contests. He spoke about the team’s tough schedule in February starting with a long West Coast trip and how he had begun to overthink things in games.
Then the league paused.
When the Wizards finally emerge from their nearly five-month recess Wednesday in a televised scrimmage against Denver, Hachimura’s performance will be a focus for Coach Scott Brooks.
Brooks will be watching his squad with an eye on determining his rotations for the eight-game regular season that begins July 31 against Phoenix. He will be especially attuned to what his young players show. Developing the greener guys, as Brooks repeats often, is one of the Wizards’ primary goals during the season restart. Wednesday is Brooks’ first chance to get a true idea of everyone’s baseline.
With Hachimura, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 draft, the team’s expectations are both substantial and nebulous: Brooks simply wants to see growth.
“Improve his defense. Improve his rebounding. Improve his ballhandling. Improve all areas, not just one thing,” Brooks said at the end of June, when the Wizards were first returning to workouts at Entertainment and Sports Arena.
Since then, Brooks has acknowledged that the rookie will have the opportunity to take on a bigger role in the absence of Bradley Beal, who is sitting out the restart due to a rotator cuff injury, and Davis Bertans, who elected to skip the restart.
During the season, Hachimura averaged 13.4 points (third on the team), six rebounds and shot 47.8 percent from the field over his 41 games, proving to be a consistent scoring option. He’s added 10 pounds of muscle since then and looks stronger around the rim. Now, Brooks wants to see the forward extend himself both in his skill-set and in his leadership, to see him speak up more and show confidence.
Hachimura’s teammates have already seen development on that front.
“He talks a little more, I would say. Talks a little bit more s—, excuse my language,” center Moritz Wagner said of Hachimura last week. ” . . . He feels comfortable, I think, in this environment, we need that. He’s a big part of our offense and team as one of our top scorers and most consistent weapons, so we need him to speak up and be consistent with that and have a confidence and feel comfortable in this environment. I think he’s proven that the last couple days, it’s fun to be around him. He’s a goofy kid. People always think he’s shy, but he really isn’t.”
Brooks certainly doesn’t want Hachimura to be timid from behind the three-point line.
The forward averaged 1.8 three-point attempts and shot 27.4 percent from long range before the shutdown, numbers Brooks said cloud increase easily as Hachimura works on developing a higher arc to his shot.
“It’s going to take some reps, it’s going to take some time. He has to be able to shoot it with confidence in the games and be able to fight through some tough stretches where he doesn’t make them,” Brooks said.
Hachimura was less bullish on flaunting his long-range game when he spoke to reporters this week.
The 22-year-old sees himself as more of a creator than a shooter, especially with Beal, the team’s top playmaker, absent.
“You know, people have been talking about my threes and stuff, but I’m not worried about it,” Hachimura said. “I shoot when I have a chance . . . but I’m not forcing it to shoot threes and trying to be three-point shooter, because it’s not my game.”
Thus far, after one week of returning to five-on-five play, Brooks said he’s been impressed with a refreshed, refocused Hachimura. The team shared one particularly emphatic dunk from practice on social media this week, the type of play Brooks said isn’t rare down in Florida.
“He had that same play again tonight – drives down the middle, gets a rebound, drives the length of the court, crosses over at the top of the key, goes to his right, finishes it with his right hand with a dunk. He’s improved,” Brooks said. “The game is not quite as slow as it needs to be and it will be a few years from now, but it has slowed down. It’s almost like it started his second season with some of the rookies . . . hopefully he comes up and keeps playing well the next week before we play our first game.”