The Washington Wizards have arrived at the Walt Disney World sports complex with a shorthanded squad as they prepare to resume the 2019-20 NBA season later this month.
Without players such as Jon Wall, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, who have declined to take part in the competition, the spotlight will shine even more brightly on Japanese rookie Rui Hachimura, who has arguably become the best player on the Wizards' roster.
Addressing reporters in a Zoom call after the team's third day of practice Saturday at the complex outside Orlando, Florida, the 203-cm forward said he was ready to step up and contribute in ways beyond scoring points.
The situation will force Hachimura to carry his team in a way he hasn't done since before joining the NBA.
“I have to be the guy, not only like I was at Gonzaga but also for the national team,” Hachimura said when asked if his experience at Gonzaga University, where he led the team with 19.7 points per game as a junior in his final season, would apply to the Disney tournament. “I’ll have more opportunities to score and do playmaking stuff. It’s going to be great for me. We have a young team, and have a great opportunity.”
The 22-year-old has also been the ace player for Japan's men’s team, known as the Akatsuki Five, in recent international competitions including the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.
Besides Wall, Beal and Bertans, the Wizards may be missing several other players. Some U.S. media outlets reported on Friday that Thomas Bryant, Gary Payton II and Garrison Mathews did not travel with the team to Florida.
According to Ava Wallace of the Washington Post, Bryant and Payton have tested positive for the coronavirus while Mathews is absent due to personal reasons.
Beal is the second-highest scorer in the league this season with 30.5 points per game, while Latvian Bertans is Washington’s second-best scorer with an average of 15.4 points. Bryant has put up 12.1 points and a team-best 6.8 rebounds per game.
Without those players on the court, Hachimura, who has averaged 13.4 points and six rebounds in his pro debut year, will presumably have to carry the load for the Wizards, who are ninth in the Eastern Conference — 5½ games behind the eighth-place Orlando Magic.
“I have not particularly been told what to do,” Hachimura said when asked if his coaches have discussed what his role will be without Beal, Bertans and others in the squad. “They’ve told me to just play as aggressively as I have because I’ve still been in the process of learning (the NBA game).”
As for being in the unprecedented "bubble," the isolated set of facilities occupied by players and team staff in order to prevent COVID-19 infections, Hachimura said that he was surprised to see how much had been spent on preparations.
“Actually, it’s been great,” he said. “You guys may have seen other players talk about the food and stuff. But to me, there’s no problem. This is a great opportunity for us. Especially because we’ve got a young team. We’ve got an opportunity to play here. And we appreciate all the workers here. We just started (practicing) but things have been great.”
While he plays video games to relax in his spare time, Hachimura said he has also tried to be productive during his time away from basketball by learning to manage his personal finances.
“I felt like I have to take care of the money I make on my own,” Hachimura said. “It might not be possible to do it all by myself, but I have to do it as much as I can.”