Rui Hachimura roundtable: His strengths, weaknesses and his fit with Lakers

Rui Hachimura was officially introduced as a Lakers player on Tuesday night ahead of the Lakers’ 133-115 loss to the LA Clippers. Hachimura is making his debut on Wednesday against the Spurs, according to Lakers head coach Darvin Ham.

To dissect Hachimura’s strengths, weaknesses and fit with the Lakers, The Athletic has gathered Lakers beat writer Jovan Buha and Wizards beat writer Josh Robbins for a roundtable discussion about Hachimura’s strengths, weaknesses and expected role in LA

Jovan Buha: Josh, thanks for doing this. I think it’s safe to say that Lakers fans are excited about Hachimura’s arrival based on conversations I’ve had and the reaction on social media. What can they expect from him? What are his strengths about him? It’s no secret that the Lakers have been seeking an upgrade in the frontcourt, and he appears to check a lot of the boxes.

Josh Robbins: I can distill Hachimura’s best attribute in three words: He can score.

That may not seem profound, but he possesses an uncanny feel for getting good looks at the basket and then converting on those good looks, especially from the midrange on in. Someone glancing at Hachimura’s stats for the first time may not be overwhelmed by his 13.0 points per game this season, but it’s important to note that he averaged only 23.4 minutes per game in Washington.

To put it another way: Through Monday, he ranked fourth on the Wizards in points per 36 minutes, at 19.3 points, trailing only Bradley Beal (24.4 points per 36 minutes), Kristaps Porziņģis (24.3) and Kyle Kuzma (22.3).

And although he almost certainly prefers to start, he still can heat up in a hurry off the bench. Within the last month, he’s twice scored 30 points in a game. The first time, on Dec. 28 against Phoenix, he played only 27 minutes, 42 seconds. The second time, this past Saturday against Orlando, he played just 29 minutes, 59 seconds. He’s not going to be that prolific in most games, but it shows how well he can score — and how he’s not bashful looking for his shot.

He has the potential to be a bona fide floor spacer. Last season, he took a massive leap as a 3-point shooter, making 44.7 percent of his attempts on the relatively low volume of 2.9 attempts per game. This season, he’s shooting just 33.7 percent from deep on nearly identical volume. Despite the decline in accuracy, he has become adept at faking a shot beyond the arc, putting the ball on the deck and either pulling up for a midrange jumper (his specialty) or driving to the hoop.

Hachimura has an NBA-ready body with good strength, but he can go long stretches in games in which he doesn’t appear very athletic. Then, all of a sudden, he’ll make a play that will make people watching him, including scouts, go, “Whoa!” So he’s athletic enough. He just needs to show it more often.

buha: That all sounds appealing. What about his weaknesses? There had to be reasons why Washington was willing to move on from him despite his age and pedigree.

Robbins: His weaknesses are significant, and big picture, his weaknesses revolve around how awkwardly he often fits into a five-man game.

Defensively, he often looks uninterested, and he struggled at times with his team defense and with defending on the perimeter, which is something I think he still feels uncomfortable with.

Here’s what Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. told me earlier this month when I asked about Hachimura’s development: “He’s got a better feel for his weakside defense, the individual, one-on-one piece. … But his overall awareness of what we’re trying to do schematically is much better. You can tell he’s in the right spots. When he’s dialed in, he can play with that level of physicality, and it impacts the game.”

Note the words “when he’s dialed in.” To read between the lines there, Hachimura may have made improvements, but he can still be very inconsistent on defense, which is something that reduced his minutes in Washington and prevented him from earning a larger role.

Just a little while ago, I mentioned that Hachimura can score. That’s good, but a lot of the time, it’s also bad. He has a glaring tendency to play with blinders on — so much so that the moment he gets the ball, there are times you can tell he has no intention of passing to teammates. If you appreciate ball movement and unselfish play, he can be difficult to watch. According to the advanced analytics tracked by Cleaning the Glass, Hachimura has one of the worst assist rate-to-usage rate ratios among all NBA forwards this season.

As for why the Wizards moved him, Kyle Kuzma arrived in Washington just before Hachimura took an excused leave of absence following the Tokyo Olympics and missed almost half of the 2021-22 season. Kuzma has outplayed Hachimura ever since, and the Wizards want to re-sign Kuzma when he reaches unrestricted free agency this summer. Moving Hachimura will make it easier for Washington to keep Kuzma this offseason and remain under the luxury tax.

The Wizards and Hachimura did not reach an extension agreement during the window for rookie-scale extensions, and Hachimura wanted the Wizards to trade him.

Do you think having LeBron James as a teammate will help Hachimura be more unselfish on the court?

buha: I think so. Playing with James tends to yield a more team-first mindset from most players, as your best player often sets the tone with their mentality and approach.

I also think the Lakers will probably shift Hachimura’s offensive role more toward being a finisher rather than an on-ball initiator. They already have a slew of ballhandlers and guards. I suspect most of his shots from him will come off catch-and-shoot opportunities, rolls and cuts, and in transition, where the Lakers excel as a group. He won’t get as many isolations or midrange looks as he did in Washington.

The Lakers are betting on their locker room’s ability to unlock a more focused and consistent version of Hachimura with players like James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley setting an example with winning habits.

Robbins: I’ll be interested to see if he can make the transition into having fewer isos and midrange looks, but if James is feeding him the ball, chances are James will put Hachimura into spots where he can succeed.

How do you think he fits into the Lakers’ rotation?

buha: From what I’ve been told, Hachimura is expected to start at some point soon, if not from Day 1. He’ll plug in nicely alongside Davis and James, forming a frontcourt that’s light on shooting but dominant from a versatility and physicality standpoint . He should be in the 26- to 28-minute range, I’d guess, but that’ll depend on how well he plays, to some extent.

The Lakers desperately needed more size, length and athleticism in their frontcourt, and Hachimura can immediately step in and take some of the minutes that were going to Troy Brown Jr., Wenyen Gabriel and Juan Toscano-Anderson. As long as he’s an upgrade over those three players, which he should be, I think this deal was worthwhile for the Lakers — at least in the short term. Long term, I’m interested in how the Lakers approach Hachimura’s restricted free agency and what his market looks like.

I could see Hachimura being more involved in the offense with the second-unit lineups led by James and Westbrook — lineups that want to play fast and get downhill. When he plays with the starters, he’ll be the third, if not the fourth option, behind James, Davis and sometimes Dennis Schröder. He should slot in nicely as one of the team’s top seven or eight players.

Robbins: There’s something I’d like to add. Since the trade, I’ve heard it said and seen it written that Hachimura is a wing. That’s not his natural position of him. His natural position is power forward. In Washington this season, he played the four the vast majority of the time.

Part of the issue is that he’s not a creator on offense and needs to work on his handle. Also, while he probably has the athleticism to guard many wings in short doses, I think he’s better off defending players who aren’t quite as quick.

But if he can shore up that aspect of his defensive game, he would become a much more valuable player. Perhaps Darvin Ham, who played with such admirable grit, can unlock that in Hachimura.

(Photo of Rui Hachimura: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)


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