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2021-22 Wizards player evaluations: Rui Hachimura improves in his third NBA season

Here’s a two-way chat on how the Washington Wizards forward improved this season and what we can look forward to next year.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

There are many perspectives and possible points of view on Rui Hachimura, especially after this last season. So we brought together two of our writers to break down some of these angles by informally chatting on Rui’s past season.

Enjoy, and let us know what you think in the comments!

Yanir Rubinstein: Let me put it out there: there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Rui Hachimura immediately coming into this league as a starter, right from his first game, did him no favors.

Ron Oakes-Cunningham: I think I agree... but what do you mean by that?

YR: A couple of things, but you go first.

ROC: Straining back to recall the last pre-pandemic season, with CJ Miles's early-season injury, Rui was better—in a pure talent sense—than every other forward/tweener on the 2019-20 Washington Wizards. That said, the Wizards did him no favor starting him out of the gate. With a team void of competent vets, Rui was left to figure it out on his own.

YR: Good point. Here are a couple of things I felt.

First, there was no emphasis on or urgency of developing him, like working on his weaknesses, or for that matter any sort of learning curve, going up from the G-League, etc. Scotty Brooks was trying to make some sort of desperate run to save his coaching career and get a contract extension so he doesn’t enter his last year as a lame-duck, and so was basically utilizing any and every weapon he had at his disposal. Rui was marketed (and we’ll talk about that...) as a ready-to-go guy, ready to be the face of his brand. I do think that the economics got some priority here over basketball, and I wonder if in the long run it will hurt him in both aspects, actually.

Second, I feel it put a lot of pressure on him to produce and put up stats right from the beginning, instead of integrating his play into the team.

Third, in his rookie season, the Wizards were playing no defense whatsoever, and so that weak point of his game never really developed.

ROC: (Quick aside: One thing the economics of having a talented, multi-racial Japanese citizen in America’s capital led to? Being nigh impossible to land a reservation at SHŌTŌ.)

YR: Looking at Rui, especially going to some games and looking at him when the cameras are focusing on the ball, it becomes evident that he lacks certain, how to call it, “peripheral vision” that is essential for communicating with teammates effectively and reading the game of basketball. I don’t know if this is related to his career-defining experiences as a leader for the Japan national team, where he essentially gets little contributions from his teammates and is almost forced to put his head down and look for his own shot very aggressively. Maybe it’s also related to Rui’s language barriers, though you’d imagine that that must be behind him after three seasons in Gonzaga. Yet talking to people you do get the impression that Rui has some communication challenges.

ROC: Basketball has its own language structure so I’m unsure if Rui’s native Japanese is reason enough for his tunnel vision on offense.

YR: I have heard various stories of people inside and outside the organization basically saying that he sometimes either does not understand English or at least pretends not to understand it. It really may be beyond language, but the stories are out there.

ROC: I’ll concede that within the language—really, culture—of basketball, there’s linguistic variation, so a simpler potential reason for Rui’s lack of peripheral vision may just be, like Carmelo Anthony and other midrange assassins before him, Rui’s a ball hog. Or otherwise said, his chosen articulation may be to only get buckets. This past season’s tape is replete with examples of Rui receiving the ball and going right into attack mode. The more interesting question here, though, is the Why. Why did/does Rui see only the basket? Perhaps it's because when he does have a disadvantaged defender guarding him, the team looks him off. Or perhaps it was because of the spotty minutes that Coach Unseld Jr allocated for him? Or perhaps it was because the ball only found him in bail-out situations. Solve the why and perhaps the communication issues disappear?

YR: I really admire the devil’s advocate approach you’ve taken here... I mean, you have other guys getting spotty minutes and making the one or two extra passes. Rui is just unusual in this sense.

To me, it’s just inexcusable that Rui, albeit being a very able shot creator, does not look up and try to find teammates other than Beal. He seems to think of basketball in some hierarchical way, instead of an “Everybody Eats” sort of endeavor.

I just don’t see the value of keeping him when he is so diametrically opposed to the team concept. Besides, I do think his trade value is not going to get any better in the future. If you can get a 2nd rounder plus a pick swap and a young project for his last rookie-contract year you just do it.

ROC: Or you don’t, as such a trade will piss off those ardent fanatics of his.

YR: I’m not so sure. I mean if he can find another team that will develop him that will be great for his game, and possibly also for his brand as he then branches and enlarges his fan base (plus think of all those merch-loving Japanese fans that already have his Wizards jersey but will now also buy his, say, Portland jersey). Plus, he is now entering a contract year and people understand this is a business and he (and his brand) might move on to greener pastures. It’s almost inevitable.

ROC: I am unsure why the discourse around Rui has led to the rising of banners, drawing of lines, and preparing of propaganda. (Call it the “Rui War.”) But I am sure that one side (call ‘em “Rui Stans”) of the Rui War believes that there’s something special, an X-Factor if you will, in Rui’s near future. To those blokes, in his short, ten-year foray into high-level basketball, Rui has already become one of the current best players in the world. And now with a sure-fire three-point arrow added to his quiver, they tell us, Rui’s bag is expanding toward the “Can't Guard Me” level.

As Chase Hughes put it:

“Hachimura went from shooting 31.3% from three on 2.1 attempts per game in his first two NBA seasons to 44.7% on 2.9 attempts per game in 2021-22. His percentage led Wizards regulars and, while he didn’t play enough games to qualify for official leaderboards, Hachimura’s 44.7% clip was second only to Clippers guard Luke Kennard (44.9%) among all NBA players who attempted at least 100 threes this season.”

With the three-ball added to the bag and the otherworldly athleticism and midrange already in place, the Rui Stans report that they believe the skills will dovetail, giving the team its first X-factor since... well, Ledell Eackles.

YR: Great narrative, I’m buying in, lol, and I like the storytelling! Go on.

ROC: But it’s not all pollyannaish from the Rui Stans, they admit (as they must) that he has more to improve on. The Rui Stans concede that he did not make significant jumps in the areas of ball-handling, defensive awareness, or quickly reading doubles.

YR: Gotta love the honesty of those Stans...

ROC: But what he did improve on, the Rui Stans tells us, is the most integral: mental health. I don’t know when it became cool to write/pod/tweet/meme disrespectful things about NBA players other than Davis Bertans, but I do know the slander is pervasive. And when the vitriol sent your way has less to do with performance and more with one’s pigment, it’s of no surprise that it impacts mental health. Having begun the season ailing in that regard, Rui worked his way back to be able to deal with the barbs sent his way from the opposite side of the Rui War. So looking at his marks for this past campaign, Rui Stans tell me that they see the following:

  • Mental Health Improvement: A
  • Three-Point Shot Improvement: A
  • Defensive Awareness Improvement: C
  • Handle Improvement: C
  • Rui's Final grade for this season? B (for bravery.)

YR: Wow, if they hadn’t handed out the MIP to Ja last week, Rui would have snatched it!

Seriously, I think there is one missing line:

Trade value improvement: B

Rui’s trade value has gone up this year, and you’ve convinced me he is actually worth a mid to late first-rounder in return. I give my blessing for such a trade and hope that in a different team he blossoms into an able passer and elite defender and if that happens, inevitably into an All-Star.