Barring a stunning turnaround in the next seven weeks, the Wizards' 2020-21 season is likely going to go down as a bizarre and trying year, one in which the negatives outweighed the positives and sometimes in unprecedented ways. They had the league's worst coronavirus outbreak, and the first that was widespread, in the only season the NBA plans to play outside of a bubble in the middle of a pandemic. It was a dose of bad luck only the Wizards could experience.
On top of that, there have been injuries to key players including Thomas Bryant's season-ending ACL tear. And along the way, they have lost many more games than they have won, at times seemingly with no good explanation why. It has been a tough year, no doubt.
There have, however, been some positives and arguably none has been more important than the development of Rui Hachimura. The second-year forward keeps raising the bar, even as the team ebbs and flows around him. He tied a career-high with 30 points in the Wizards' loss to the Hornets on Tuesday, with four rebounds and three assists to complement.
It was Hachimura's 10th consecutive game in double figures and the sixth time during that stretch he's scored 20 or more. He reached 20 points just twice in his previous 29 games this season.
He's done that in part because of his improved three-point shot. Over his last 10 games, while averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds, Hachimura has shot 40.6 percent from three on 3.2 attempts per game.
"Rui is, I’m telling you, he’s coming along. He still has a few levels of getting better. That’s the thing I love about him," head coach Scott Brooks.
"Give him until his third or fourth year. We’re going to see him become a really high, high-level player."
Many, Hachimura included, will point to the leadership of Russell Westbrook as being partly to credit for his rise. Westbrook has taken Hachimura under his wing both on and off the court. They bow together as part of their pregame handshake and Hachimura calls Westbrook 'senpai,' which means 'senior' in Japanese, Hachimura's first language.
On the floor, Westbrook initiates the offense and has developed good timing with his passes to Hachimura, particularly in the post. Westbrook has assisted on 76 of Hachimura's field goals this season, more than twice the next guy on the list (Bradley Beal).
"I feel like that’s because of Russ. He always gets the attention, especially offensively," Hachimura said. "He always has the ball, he’s a great playmaker. He always gives us good opportunities for us."
Brooks has seen Hachimura adapt to Westbrook's style of play in several different ways. One is when Westbrook charges the basket for a defensive rebound. Hachimura will sprint up the floor and often be able to find a mismatch in the post while guarded by a smaller player. Brooks believes Westbrook, a guard, going for so many rebounds creates an imbalance in the defense when they pick up their man in transition.
"If you run, you’re going to get postups with small guys on you. You can see the last five games, there have been more. Russell is throwing it over the top and smalls are in jail," Brooks said.
Brooks believes Hachimura is seeing the game better and it's starting to slow down with more experience. His cuts have been more precise and that's important when playing with Westbrook, Brooks says, because of his speed.
Hachimura also believes getting stronger in the offseason has helped his game. He was good in the midrange as a rookie, but now he's hitting shots even when closely guarded.
"I think I’ve started getting better because my body got stronger. I can use my body to create more space and make it easier in the midrange. That’s my shot and I don’t think anybody can stop that," he said.
Now, that is confidence right there. The more Hachimura develops, the more it will reflect well on the Wizards' front office as they have otherwise overseen a team that is not where they hoped it would be in the standings.
Hachimura's impressive growth in such a short period of time has proven they saw something other teams didn't in the 2019 draft. They picked a player some thought was a reach at ninth overall who found immediate success and could have star potential. Those are the moves that build winners.
Really, you could argue Hachimura is already the best draft pick the Wizards have made since 2000 other than Beal and John Wall, two perennial All-Stars. As bad as things have looked for this team in this strange season, that has to count for something.