Now that Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant have been cleared from health and safety protocols, their season debuts both appear to be imminent to different degrees. Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. conveyed optimism Hachimura could play for the first time in the next several games, while he categorized Bryant as a week or two away.
The Wizards will be getting back two quality players and two who are young enough to present upside. Maybe the Wizards do not see that right away, but there's a decent chance one or both of them proves to be better by season's end than the last time we saw them.
Their returns, though, will also put to the test a question many have been wondering since the team loaded up on depth in the offseason and that is what role both players will play. The expectation is that both will come off the bench and compete with others at their position for minutes.
That will be an adjustment from their previous roles. Hachimura has started in every one of his 105 career games, all with the Wizards. Bryant, meanwhile, has started in 99 of his 128 games with the team.
But both are coming back from long absences - Hachimura due to personal reasons and Bryant because of left ACL surgery - and the Wizards have proven players at their positions. Hachimura at forward will now compete for minutes with Kyle Kuzma, who is on a scoring surge lately, and Deni Avdija, who has emerged as perhaps the team's best defender. Bryant will join a center mix that includes Montrezl Harrell, a scorer, and Daniel Gafford, another candidate for their best defender.
Keys for Hachimura to earn playing time
Hachimura can help his cause by continuing to improve as a three-point shooter and by finding more consistency on defense. Three-point shooting will determine his compatibility to play with others. Last season, he improved his three-point percentage to 32.8 from 28.7 his rookie year. And his 36.4% from above the break was better than any player on the Wizards roster this season.
Defensively, Hachimura showed flashes last season but was not overly reliable from game-to-game. Russell Westbrook often gave him encouragement publicly and privately for being the one player on the roster who could guard just about every position (this was before's Avdija's emergence). At times, he backed that up but at other times he did not. If he can be a versatile defender more consistently, he could give the Wizards another switchable wing on that end, along with Avdija, Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
On offense, Hachimura may find some overlap with his preference for scoring around the rim and in the paint. The Wizards already attempt a lot of their shots in the restricted area (18.9 FGA/g, 5th in NBA) and in the paint (25.6 FGA, 14th in the NBA). Hachimura, though, shot a solid percentage in the paint last season (46.3%) while the Wizards have been inefficient in that area this year (40.0%, 18th in NBA).
Keys for Bryant to earn playing time
Bryant's biggest plus is his three-point shooting, as he knocked down 41.1% the last two seasons. He's one of only seven players 6-foot-10 or taller to shoot at least 40% during that span. That means he is not only unique to the Wizards' roster, but unique for the entire league as well. The Wizards can try to work in some pick-and-pop actions they don't currently utilize with Gafford and Harrell.
Bryant is particularly good at catch-and-shoot threes. He shot 42.5% on those last season and 42.9% the year before, both of which would lead the Wizards currently. The Wizards are 28th in the NBA this season in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage (33.8) and 28th in catch-and-shoot threes made per game (7.7). Caldwell-Pope has been their best catch-and-shoot marksman (41.8% from three), while Davis Bertans (32.7%), Bradley Beal (29.5%) and Corey Kispert (28.8%) have struggled uncharacteristically.
The biggest determinant for Bryant's playing time is probably going to be his defense. He was in the paint when the Wizards posted historically bad defenses in 2018-19, 2019-20 and at the start of 2020-21. Last year, the Wizards improved when Robin Lopez and Alex Len took over at center and then vaulted to near the top of the league when Gafford arrived in a trade. It's not clear how much of the previous struggles were Bryant's fault and it's worth noting they haven't been great defensively this season (22nd in defensive rating) despite having Gafford, who ranks seventh in blocks per game.
Where Bryant could be especially useful on defense is against big centers. Everyone remembers how he played Joel Embiid well in the Orlando bubble. Though that by no means suggests he's an Embiid stopper, he is bigger and has more length than the Wizards' other options at his position, which helps. His 7-foot-6 wingspan is among the widest in NBA Combine history. For context, Rudy Gobert's is 7-foot-9.
How both can help
As a duo, Hachimura and Bryant should infuse the Wizards with some offense, particularly around the rim. They should help bolster a rim attack that already includes Gafford, Harrell and others who can get there like Beal, Spencer Dinwiddie (as he showed early this season) and Kuzma (as he's shown lately). Hachimura and Bryant are also fast for their positions from baseline to baseline, which should help the Wizards' cause as they aim to improve in transition scoring. Bryant has led the Wizards in transition points-per-possession in two out of the last three years, each time ranking top-5 in the NBA in that category.
What Unseld Jr. will have to figure out is who these guys can co-exist with on the floor. Can Hachimura show improvement as a three-point shooter and then play next to Avdija, who shoots just 30.0% from long range? Can Bryant's three-point shooting allow him to play alongside Gafford, who has never even attempted a three in his career?
Injuries and other circumstances like health and safety protocols will always play a factor as the Wizards aim to sort out their newfound depth. When they have all of their players available, though, there will only be so many minutes for Unseld Jr. to dole out.
The good news is both Hachimura and Bryant should help the Wizards' cause and the wait for them to play is almost over.