Herb Jones’ eyes became as big as a pair of UFOs when he saw Austin Reaves was the only player standing in his way on the break. After an ill-advised pass from LeBron James was picked off, Jones had a breakaway and easily brushed past Reaves to get to the cup — or so he thought.
On the opposite side of the floor, a bogey in the form of Rui Hachimura was tracking Jones’ flight path the entire way. Hachimura met Jones’ layup attempt at the apex, swatted it away, and then stumbled into a row of photographers on the baseline.
With danger temporarily averted and the Lakers back on offense, the ball was swung to a now-upright Hachimura as the forward had 6’3” CJ McCollum on him. Hachimura put his head down, blasted his shoulder into the guard, and drew a pair of free throws on his drive.
It was caveman offense, but effective offense.
The two-way sequence was a snapshot of exactly what Hachimura can offer on both ends that no other non-James or Anthony Davis player on the team can. The issue is that these types of sequences have been more blips than normalities this season.
Between injuries, fluctuating minutes, and his inconsistent play, Hachimura has flown under the radar for most of the year. Recently, however, he was inserted into the starting lineup as the team’s latest attempt to find a solution at the forward spot between James and Davis.
His 21 points and the aforementioned plays Hachimura had against the Pelicans on Friday night were a good summation of why the coaching staff may believe Hachimura can be the answer.
While he does not possess the defensive versatility that Jarred Vanderbilt does — especially on the perimeter — Hachimura does have the required size to provide support to the Lakers’ small backcourt. And on offense, Taurean Prince is a far better shooter but Hachimura is a more well-rounded threat who can even serve as a hub that exploits mismatches in the post.
He does not have a singular superpower like Vanderbilt or Prince, but what Hachimura does have is balance, and represents an important middle ground. That is if he can do these things consistently.
Before his stellar game against New Orleans, Hachimura scored just two points and had four rebounds in his 38 minutes in the Lakers’ loss to the Nuggets. It was a disappointing performance, especially given Denver represents the exact opponent when the Lakers sorely need a player with Hachimura’s skillset and frame.
One couldn’t help but compare Hachimura’s impact to a player like the Nuggets’ Aaron Gordon. While no two players are alike, Gordon serves as a proxy for the type of role the Lakers need Hachimura to fill with the starting group: be burly, be felt, and more than anything else, play big.
There have been too many instances this season where Hachimura has simply been a bystander when his shot hasn’t fallen. That can no longer happen with just 28 games left in the season and Los Angeles needing to make up ground in the standings.
Perhaps Hachimura’s most important responsibility and opportunity from here on out is to play the big brother for D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves. With teams continuing to pick on the Lakers’ guards on defense, Hachimura can offer support either in terms of coming over to offer resistance or by hitting the boards after a miss.
Early in the game against New Orleans, Hachimura showed his capability of doing both. In this play, Zion Willamson attempts to take advantage of his size mismatch over Russell but is stonewalled when Hachimura seals off his runway. Then, Hachimura uses his athleticism and height to soar and secure the contested rebound away from Jonas Valanciunas.
It’s this type of activity and attention to doing the little things that need to be more of a feature of Hachimura’s game rather than an isolated occurrence.
For example, according to Cleaning the Glass, Hachimura's defensive rebound percentage is just 10.9%. This is not only a career-low for the 26-year-old but also ranks in the 37th percentile among all forwards this season.
Between his sturdy frame and agility, there’s no reason why Hachimura shouldn’t be a more consistent presence on the glass and defense. Missing shots will happen, but aspects like effort level are completely in his control.
With Vanderbilt missing time for the foreseeable future, the Lakers will need to collectively find ways to make up for his energy and size. Hachimura will not be able to replicate both, as a starter, matchups against premier wings likely will fall on his broad shoulders. And how well he fares in these assignments could dictate how far the Lakers can go.
The Lakers will also need Hachimura to exert his physical will on offense. Given who he will be sharing the floor with in the starting lineup, there will be many instances where Hachimura will find himself with some form of a mismatch and it’s up to both him and his team to exploit these instances.
Hachimura has been a solid post-up threat in his career and that has once again been the case this season. According to the league’s Synergy data, the forward is scoring 1.12 points per post-up possession this year. Feeding him then when he’s down there is a wise choice and can help be a release valve for his teammates.
When he’s not on the block against a smaller player, Hachimura can still take advantage of his defender thanks to his quick first step.
On this early offense possession, the Lakers go to their 5-out spacing and empty the corner for Hachimura to attack in space. Through his combination of burst, strength, and head/ball fakes, stopping Hachimura when he’s in motion is like trying to move out of the way of a Vader bomb.
For the Lakers to make another late-season surge, the team will need internal improvements across the board. In Hachimura’s case, that means playing bigger, both figuratively and literally.
So far, the team’s new starting lineup with Hachimura has had encouraging early returns. Not only has the group won all four games they’ve played so far, but they also have a +8.7 net rating while also limiting the opposition to an offensive rebounding percentage of just 19.4% (the Lakers’ season average allowed is 26.7%).
Hachimura has not had the year many would have hoped for after his impressive postseason performance and given the multi-year contract he inked over the summer. Fortunately, there is still time to change that perception. It won’t be easy, however.
To do so, it’s going to involve getting his hands dirty, picking up his teammates on both ends and finally putting that 6’8” and 230-plus pound frame to good use. Now is the time to create havoc. Now is the time for bully-ball.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.