- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Slowly but surely, Rui Hachimura is making progress toward an eventual return to action with the Washington Wizards

The Japanese native, who has yet to play this season, started practicing this week with the Capital City Go-Go, Washington’s G-League team. The assignment is aimed at ramping up Hachimura’s conditioning as the 23-year-old spent weeks away from the franchise due to an undisclosed personal matter. 

Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said there’s still no timetable for when Hachimura might make his season debut. But the conversations among Unseld’s staff on how to incorporate Hachimura have already started, the coach said. After all, the Wizards (11-6) have a deeper team than in past years — and Unseld will have to sort through a logjam at the forward position when Hachimura is cleared. 

“Those conversations are going to be ongoing,” Unseld said. “How do you expedite that process? All those things. There’s the medical component — making sure he’s physically ready. There’s the conditioning. There’s also the basketball part, where he’s going to be behind some of the terminology, the spacing (and) the playsets. 

“So it’s incumbent on him to catch up and we have to find a way to ease him into that. But it’s not going to happen overnight.” 

Last season, Hachimura was the Wizards’ fourth-leading scorer with 13.8 points per game. The ninth overall pick in 2019, Hachimura made a noticeable leap in his second year as his overall feel for the game improved. He credited then-teammate Russell Westbrook for helping him adopt an aggressive, more competitive play style. After the All-Star break, Hachimura averaged 15.1 points and shot 49.3%.

But Hachimura’s place in the starting lineup — and perhaps even the rotation — is far from guaranteed when he returns. Kyle Kuzma, acquired in the Russell Westbrook trade, has been reliable as Washington’s starting power forward, contributing on both sides of the ball. And while Kuzma and Hachimura could theoretically play together, small forward Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s strength as a wing defender would likely make it hard for Unseld to take the veteran out of the starting lineup.

Even if Hachimura comes off the bench, Unseld faces a challenge in setting his rotation. So far this season, the first-year coach has often used 10 players per night. Montrezl Harrell, Deni Avdija and rookie Corey Kispert serve as the bench’s frontcourt, while Aaron Holiday and Raul Neto are the backup guards. 

Hachimura for Kispert would be the most logical swap, but that doesn’t factor in sharpshooter Davis Bertans. Bertans is likely to return to the lineup this week after missing 10 games with an ankle injury — and before he got hurt, Bertans played ahead of Kispert in the rotation. 

Would Unseld be willing to make Bertans, making $16 million, a healthy scratch if Hachimura is available? If Unseld wants to play both Bertans and Hachimura in a 10-man rotation, the coach could always swap out Avdija or one of the bench guards in Neto and Holiday. But that trio, particularly Avdija, has played well to start the season.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Unseld said earlier this month when asked about re-incorporating Hachimura. “Obviously we’re playing pretty well. Sometimes as coaches we overthink it, and you’re worried about upsetting the balance. There’s another part of me that says, ‘You know what, just rip the bandaid off and go for it, see how it looks.’ … You just hope residual effects don’t affect us too much dramatically.”

The Wizards, though, could use Hachimura and Bertans’ offense. As good as Washington has been on defense, the Wizards have been out of sync offensively — ranking 19th in offensive rating through 17 games.  

Adding back Hachimura, Bertans and even center Thomas Bryant (ACL injury) would likely change that. 

“I’d be lying if I said we don’t miss those guys,” guard Bradley Beal said.”We’ve had some success, but they’re still vital pieces to our team, to our core. … We have a lot here still, even with the guys out.”

Before then, Hachimura has to clear some hurdles until the Wizards officially bring him back. Unseld said Hachimura has to progress to “one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, small-sided games.” Unseld said he wasn’t sure if Hachimura will officially play with the Go-Go in a G-League game, but added it wasn’t a requirement for him to return.

“We’re just trying to get him up to speed,” Unseld said. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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