Lately, a lot that has gone the Wizards' way, a refreshing change after their unfortunate start to the season which was headlined by a coronavirus outbreak but also included a rash of injuries. Now, they are winning games and many players are contributing.
Of all the positive developments, the play of second-year forward Rui Hachimura has stood out as much as any. After the Wizards' win over the Blazers last week, head coach Scott Brooks said in his postgame locker room speech: "Rui, you've been the difference-maker the last two weeks."
Brooks said that primarily because of Hachimura's defense. He has been a consistent scorer ever since he stepped on an NBA floor, but this season he's made significant strides on the defensive end. Hachimura is the Wizards' most versatile defender and lately has been among their most effective.
On Thursday night in the Wizards' win over the Nuggets, he held star guard Jamal Murray to 1-for-4 shooting on a night Murray scored 35 points. Murray was unstoppable against most Wizards defenders, but not Hachimura, who also had 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting and five rebounds.
"One of his best games. I mean, he seems to keep getting better," Brooks said. "I keep saying it, I think this is the third time I’ve said this now, ‘this is his best game.’ This is right there with his best game"
Brooks specifically highlighted Hachimura's awareness and effort. On offense, he ran the floor and showed good instincts being in the right place at the right time. Russell Westbrook found him for a series of buckets around the rim, as the two have continued to develop a strong connection in recent weeks.
On defense, Brooks said Hachimura was active and did a good job using his length. He's been especially pleased with Hachimura's improvement as a team defender. Hachimura has been working closely with assistant coach Corey Gaines in that area.
"He’s doing a better job of closing out and understanding there’s a lot of great shooters in this league," Brooks said. "I think his off-the-ball defense is much-improved."
Hachimura's development has been impeded by a series of obstacles, which make his continued ascension even more remarkable. Last season as a rookie he missed time with various injuries, then had to work around the NBA shutting down due to the coronavirus. This season, he battled a severe eye irritation and then the coronavirus. As a result, he has only played 71 career games despite being midway through his second season.
Despite all of that, he has continually taken steps forward in his game. Just look at some of the defensive matchups he's had this season, per NBA tracking stats:
Kevin Durant - 3-11 FG Damian Lillard - 0-8 FG Kawhi Leonard - 2-6 FG Jimmy Butler - 4-10 FG Carmelo Anthony - 2-8 FG
(via NBA tracking stats)
Those players can all score and range in height from 6-foot-3 (Lillard) to 6-foot-10 (Durant), with all different skill sets.
"[His defense] getting better every day, every game. That’s what I love about Rui. He wants to improve and has the desire to get better," Brooks said.
It's not just his defense, though. Hachimura has now scored double-figures in 10 straight games to bring his season average to 13.6. Though that's just one-tenth of a point higher than his rookie average (13.5), he's scoring more efficiently, now with an effective field goal percentage at 51.0 and rising.
It's not all that often you see players of Hachimura's inexperience score as consistently as he has, at least in Washington. He has 53 double-digit scoring games through 71 career games played. That's tied for the ninth-most in franchise history to start a career with the team with two guys who you may have heard of: Wes Unseld and Bradley Beal. Unseld is the greatest player in franchise history and Beal is now arguably the greatest scorer in franchise history.
Hachimura is in that type of company on offense and shutting down players like Durant and Lillard on defense. That's pretty good for a guy who hasn't played a full NBA season yet.