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What’s up with Rui Hachimura?

After a breakout performance in the playoffs and signing a new contract with the Lakers, Rui Hachimura’s uneven start to the season is growing more noticeable.

Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

If you looked up the Lakers’ most-used lineups this season, it would take you until the fifth five-man group (which has logged only 85 possessions by the way) before you found Rui Hachimura’s name.

While there are reasons for this, his availability and sporadic playing time are illustrative of how his absence has been felt both literally and figuratively this season.

After his stellar playoff run where he helped the Lakers reach the Western Conference Finals, the 25-year-old inked a new three-year, $51 million dollar deal with Los Angeles this past summer. It was a contract that made plenty of sense for both sides.

Although he had only been with the team for a short while, Hachimura showed enough promise as the big-bodied, spacing forward that could slot in next to both LeBron James and Anthony Davis the team had been looking for. Couple in his age and the multi-year commitment felt like a no-brainer for the Lakers.

Everything was lining up for Hachimura to hit the ground running this season. Unfortunately for him and the team, he has instead been hampered by obstacles on the track.

From a peripheral view, the forward has been right around his career averages in several statistical areas if not better in most. However, there’s a hollowness to his play so far that makes those numbers feel a bit misleading.

A large reason for this disconnect between production and perception is likely due to his fluctuating role. Perhaps more specifically, the size of his role in comparison to expectation.

After his aforementioned strong play to end the year and a new deal, many naturally assumed Hachimura was primed for a starting spot or at the very least a sizable increase in his minutes. Both of those have not transpired.

Instead, Hachimura is again coming off the bench for the Lakers and is playing slightly fewer overall minutes this season. In the team’s most recent loss to the Chicago Bulls, Hachimura logged just 15 minutes. It was the eighth time this year that he played fewer than 18.

NBA: In Season Tournament-New Orleans Pelicans at Los Angeles Lakers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Before diving into the potential on-court reasons for his seesaw in playing time, It’s worth noting the role that injuries have played.

Hachimura has already experienced two notable injuries this season that have caused him to miss time, first suffering a concussion in October and then a nasal fracture in November. Due to the broken nose, Hachimura has had to wear a mask during games, which may seem like a small thing, but it is indicative of the types of alterations he’s had to make this year.

“It’s been annoying but I have no choice. I have to wear the mask, I think it’s still broken,” Hachimura recently told reporters. “So I got to just keep wearing it and get used to it.”

Beyond the challenges that come with rebounding from two early injuries and sporting new facial wear, Hachimura has also had to toe the line between being aggressive and waiting his turn.

Despite being one of the highest-paid players on the team, there is a clear pecking order after James, Davis, and even Austin Reaves, which has often resulted in Hachimura drifting into the background.

A good example of this can be seen in the changes to his shot profile this season. After spending years as one of the league’s most midrange-heavy scorers, Hachimura has since modernized his game when arriving in Los Angeles.

According to Cleaning the Glass, 75% of Hachimura’s shots this year have come at the rim and from three. Whether by design or necessity in adjusting to playing alongside the Lakers’ stars, the forward’s “Moreyball” approach has significantly cut into his midrange looks.

As of this article, he is taking a career-low 25% of his attempts from the midrange, which is not only down 11% from last year, but a whopping 19% from the 44% rate he averaged over his four seasons in Washington.

From a tactical sense, the changes make sense for spacing purposes given how much Hachimura has played off the ball since joining the Lakers. The other side of the coin, however, is how this has defanged some of his bite.

While the team still does attempt to carve out room for Hachimura to bully mismatches when situations arise, for the most part, he has been dependent on others to generate his looks for him. On the season, a career-high 86% of his makes have come from a teammate’s assist. That’s up 12% after being traded to the Lakers and 22% from his 2022-23 season with the Wizards.

Despite getting his feet wet with the Lakers toward the tail end of last year, Hachimura is still attempting to nail the balancing act of optimizing the team while also not losing himself.

In the instances where he succeeds, Hachimura plays like a lethal third option, punishing the opposition with his shooting touch and finishing at the cup after James and Davis collapse the defense. When he fails, Hachimura gets tunnel vision by attacking a crowd of defenders, or worse, is reduced to standing on the wing motionless.

While his uneven play on offense has certainly been a factor in his fluctuating role and inconsistent minutes, a bigger reason in the coaching staff’s eyes is likely due to his defense.

After showing flashes of being a switchable on-ball defender with his burly frame and agile feet, Hachimura’s overall effort on the defensive end has been unreliable to start the year.

Beyond being susceptible to blow-by’s and ill-timed screen navigation, Hachimura has especially been burned off the ball on several occasions, losing his man on cuts and relocations.

To make matters worse, Hachimura has not helped on the boards nearly enough when he’s been on the floor to make up for some of his shortcomings. While individual rebounding numbers aren’t entirely indicative of effort or ability, Hachimura is posting a career-low 9.9% defensive rebound percentage this season, which ranks in just the 28th percentile among forwards.

For a team that has struggled as mightily on the defensive glass as the Lakers, they desperately need players with Hachimura’s size to help Davis end possessions down low.

It’s still admittedly very early to make any broad conclusions about Hachimura as there are more than enough contextual reasons to be patient with him as he eases his way back into the groove of things.

That said, given the variability in his role, the team’s recent skid, and the sheer optionality his contract allows, there will be murmurings about his long-term outlook with the team. His name has already been in trade rumors and those will likely only continue after he becomes trade-eligible on Jan. 15th.

His staunchest defenders can point to his shooting continuing to trend upward and his fit next to James as reasons for riding out this rough patch. The Lakers are 6.1 points better than the opposition when the two share the floor this year and Hachimura’s true-shooting percentage is a staggering 17 points higher next to James compared to when he’s off. That’s the highest discrepancy among Lakers who have played at least 100 minutes with James this season.

His fiercest detractors can argue his shooting does not equate to spacing as teams will still play off of him in the half-court. There are also the aforementioned question marks on defense and the mixed results from the Hachimura, James, and Davis trio thus far.

The Lakers are 7.3 points worse than their opponent when the three have shared the floor this season. They’ve only played 116 possessions together, so the sample is small, but it hasn’t been the smoothest combination when they’ve been out there.

Time will tell if Hachimura can take the steps many expected he would on this current iteration of the Lakers team. His slow start isn’t entirely his fault, but he’s not blameless either.

History has shown how fickle public opinion of a player can be. Sometimes all it takes is a hot stretch to swing things back in their favor. Fortunately for Hachimura, he’s already proven that he’s capable of doing just that regardless of how bright the lights are.

You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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