Rui Hachimura was pivotal in the Lakers turning around their season last year. He immediately provided the team with a solid wing who can shoot well from three and is a mid-range savant.
As the Lakers advanced deeper and deeper into the playoffs, his value only enhanced and his performances improved. He was the sixth man for the team, shined in that role, and was one of the few bright spots for Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals, averaging 15.25 points in his 33 minutes of play.
As a final attempt at salvaging their season, the Lakers gave Hachimura the start in the last game of the series versus the Nuggets and while it didn't result in a win, it demonstrated how much the team trusts and believes in him.
RUI HACHIMURA WITH THE SLAM pic.twitter.com/tKmKWOTK5Q— Ahn Fire Digital (@AhnFireDigital) November 11, 2023
They doubled down on that trust and re-signed Hachimura this year to a 3-year, $51-million deal. And early on in this season, Darvin Ham discussed Hachimura being his best self coming off the bench and in his first five games, that was his role.
The results were mediocre.
Averaging just 11 points and a couple of woeful shooting performances, Hachimura didn't look like he was coming into his own or even picking up where he left off last season. He looked like a fish out of water, unsure of his role and unable to execute it.
On Sunday's game versus the Portland Trail Blazers, Ham opted to give his super sub the start in place of the injured LeBron James and the result was one of Hachimura's best performances of the season, finishing the night with 19 points on 60% shooting.
Was it the switch to starter that helped jump-start his game? Is the role different enough to cause an improvement in play?
"I mean, it's different but at the end of the day, it's the same thing," Hachimura said postgame. "What I have to do is the same thing. Play defense, get a rebound and then attack on the offense, it's the same thing. Rhythm-wise, being in the starting lineup is easy. For the team, if they need me to come off the bench, I'll take that. You just have to get in a rhythm coming off the bench but that's about it."
Perhaps it's being a bit too analytical, but Hachimura saying, "Being in the starting lineup is easy," then going on to say, "If they need me to come off the bench, I'll take that" makes it sound like ideally he'd like to start and finds it easier to get into a rhythm by doing so, which makes sense. Most players put importance and value on starting even over minutes played but are wise enough not to come out and say so unless they have a superstar cache.
Figuring out if Hachimura starting is his ideal role and ideal for the Lakers is the job Ham is tasked with and postgame, he talked about what he wants to see from his wing moving forward.
"I just think having Rui on the floor with an aggressive mentality is the Rui we all prefer," Ham said after the win versus Portland. "I don't know if there's a difference. He's had big games off the bench, he's had big games when he's had to be a starter. I just think the common denominator is him being aggressive and assertive and active on both sides of the ball... Still young, still developing. He's come a long way but, even still, there's a lot of things he can get better at. But we just want an aggressive and assertive Rui Hachimura."
Regardless of his role, the Lakers need Hachimura to return to form like he did against the Blazers on Sunday. If he can continue to be the Lakers' Swiss Army Knife and adjust to a given role, it will allow Ham the luxury to experiment and tinker with lineups while still finding ways to win.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.