With his first shot of the 2020-21 NBA season, Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura demonstrated a silky release to drain a three against the Chicago Bulls. And the second-year forward out of Gonzaga didn’t just assert himself on the offensive end; Hachimura grabbed two defensive rebounds as well. After being subbed at the 5:38 mark in the first quarter, Hachimura left the court with 10 points and two rebounds, shooting 2-of-2 from three and 2-of-3 from the foul line.
On a night when his minutes were limited to 25, Hachimura finished with 17 points, five rebounds and three assists — the flashiest of which was a no-look, behind-the-back dish to Thomas Bryant under the rim.
“Rui, that’s a good first game back,” Head Coach Scott Brooks told reporters after the match. “He was great. I kind of thought he would have this type of game. He’s just a freak athlete. He came in and he conditioned himself while he was out. He got a lot of great work in the last four or five days. I thought he was terrific on both ends.”
For the former 9th overall pick, it was comforting being back on the court after missing the team’s first four games with conjunctivitis. “I felt good,” Hachimura said. “I felt good out there. It’s good to be back. As a team, we want to win. I think today we came out with a great energy.”
For a player who has had to work on his three-point game since entering the NBA, Hachimura has always had a polished stroke inside the arc. Through three games, he is averaging 7.3 attempts from two, knocking down 55 percent of his tries. He also has continued to develop a strong post-up game, expanding upon a skill set that already included a formidable mid-range attack.
In Washington’s most recent game, a 123–122 win over the Brooklyn Nets, Hachimura found himself covered by Kyrie Irving following several defensive switches by the Nets. And while Irving is an all-star caliber player in his own right, Hachimura’s combination of strength and size allowed him to bully the smaller Irving at the rim.
“Rui had a lot of good post-ups,” Brooks said. “We wanted to attack that matchup [with Irving], and I thought we did. There’s a lot of times that we wouldn’t have ever been able to find that matchup, find Rui being guarded by a point guard, but we found it quick and we attacked it quick and we got buckets off of it very quick.”
For all he has added to his game on the offensive side of the ball, Hachimura will be tasked with guarding some of the top forwards in the league this year; against Brooklyn, he drew one of toughest matchups against 10-time all-star and former MVP Kevin Durant. As difficult as a defensive assignment that was, Hachimura did well to limit one of the premier scorers in the association.
“Rui, he’s growing up,” Brooks said. “[Against Brooklyn, he] just got a little bit better. When you guard players like [Durant], you get a little better because your attention to detail, your mental attendance, has to be up.”
Hachimura, who spent parts of the offseason working with a trainer in LA to add strength to his game has benefited from the roster General Manager Tommy Sheppard has carefully constructed around him. The plethora of shooters opens up the floor for the second-year forward to go to work in the paint and around the rim.
Already three games into the season, Hachimura is averaging 14.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists with a player efficiency rating — which measures per-minute production compared with a league average of 15 — of 16.9.
For many players, the game slows down in their second season. For Hachimura, the start of his second campaign with the Wizards has begun with a calmness he didn’t possess last year.
When asked what has changed for Hachimura this season, Brooks noted his composure. “Just his comfort level,” Brooks said. “Guarding, knowing the league. Him knowing the personnel is much better. And then to be able to see it quicker and internalize it is much better the second year. The biggest thing is just his comfort level with his teammates. He’s said many times now he’s not as reserved, he’s not as shy. You can see he’s really coming into his own.”
In his most recent press conference, held virtually this Monday via Zoom, Hachimura said he felt “fine” in his past three matches, leaving reporters with a closing statement that should frighten opposition defenses: “I’m just ready to play.”