Basketball | HOOP SCOOP

Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura making strides on defense

Rui Hachimura has demonstrated throughout his rookie season that he’s a capable scorer, using his athleticism to get plenty of close-to-the-basket shots and perimeter scoring chances.

The Washington Wizards power forward has also shown that he has the stamina and strength to be a solid rebounder.

Through Wednesday, Hachimura is averaging 14.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 29.4 minutes in 38 games. After missing 23 games due to a groin injury, Hachimura returned to the rotation against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 3 and has found his offensive rhythm. He’s scored in double figures in 12 of the 13 games since his return, including a pair of 20-point efforts in that stretch.

On defense, he’s also embraced the challenge of being tested against the best. Which is exactly what happened on Feb. 24 against reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

While defending the Bucks superstar, the 22-year-old Hachimura had some success in slowing him down on offense. No easy task.

Just ask any other player in the NBA.

In the Bucks’ 137-134 overtime victory, Hachimura played a game-high 46 minutes and Washington held the Greek Freak to 22 points (nearly eight below his season average of 29.6). He also committed eight turnovers (well above his 3.7 average).

“According to NBA.com‘s tracking data, Hachimura forced three of those turnovers,” NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes reported. “He guarded Antetokounmpo to begin the game and very quickly set a physical tone with bump-and-run defense.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks acknowledged that it’s difficult for a rookie to square off against Antetokounmpo, but stated bluntly that it’s Hachimura’s job to handle the task.

“It’s his position,” Brooks was quoted as saying by NBC Sports Washington. “He’s going to have to guard a lot of good fours in this league. There is nobody better.”

Hachimura’s commitment to become a better all-around player was on display throughout that game.

“I’m not scared, I just have to guard him — that’s my job,” Hachimura said of Antetokounmpo, according to NBC Sports Washington. “Just have to be physical.”

Through Wednesday, the Wizards (22-39), ninth in the Eastern Conference, sit 4½ games behind the Orlando Magic (27-35) for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Wizards are 4-6 in their past 10 games.

Hachimura’s solid play, including on defense, has helped push the Wizards within striking distance of the playoffs. But their porous team defense (a league-worst 120.2 points per game) will likely keep them out of postseason play.

NBA insiders weigh in

In interviews with prominent NBA pundits this week, Hachimura’s overall improvement as a rookie was one of the main points of discussion.

“I believe his defense is getting much better,” Candace Buckner, who covers the Wizards for The Washington Post, told Hoop Scoop on Monday.

“Just the other night when they played the Milwaukee Bucks and he had the assignment of (guarding) Giannis, he did a good job keeping him in check. Brooks did praise him for that game but there are areas of improving, like doing that consistently.”

Bucks television commentator Marques Johnson, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1977 NBA Draft, stated that he’s impressed with Hachimura’s fundamentals and general feel for the game.

“I like him overall as a player,” Johnson told Hoop Scoop. “Strong body, understands positioning. Good feet. The fact that he is playing quality minutes (as a rookie) is a testament to his adapting to this level. Not always a given, especially this quickly.”

The five-time NBA All-Star recently spoke with former Gonzaga University assistant coach Donny Daniels, who helped develop Hachimura’s game after he moved from Toyama to the United States in 2016.

Recounting their conversation about Hachimura, Johnson related that Daniels “spoke glowingly about his ability to focus (the language barrier) and how hard he worked to improve every aspect of his game.”

In the final analysis, Johnson believes Hachimura has a promising future in the NBA.

“At minimum, (he) will be a solid contributor for years to come,” Johnson declared.

Marc Stein, the 2019 recipient of the Curt Gowdy Media Award (print), began covering the NBA in 1989. Nowadays, The New York Times basketball scribe is widely recognized as one of the foremost experts on the league.

When asked to assess Hachimura’s play as a rookie, Stein summed it up this way: “He’s had a good first season. The injury naturally slowed him down some, but the Wizards have been at or near the bottom worst defensively all season, so that’s not an easy environment to be throw into.

“Rui has shown promise on both sides of the ball and, most importantly, will come away from this season having gained priceless experience through major rotation minutes.”

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