- The Washington Times
Monday, January 10, 2022

Bradley Beal knows there’s a downside to everything.

Rui Hachimura’s return is a positive in almost every aspect for the Wizards. The former first-round pick adds size, athleticism and flexibility that the team needs.

However, there’s one area it makes things more difficult — on coach Wes Unseld Jr. and his decisions on the team’s rotation.

“It gives us more versatility. But it’s tough on coach’s part,” Beal said with a smile. “Because he has to figure out who to play and what the rotations will be.”

Aside from the excitement (and relief) of Hachimura coming back from his hiatus — which spanned Washington’s first 39 games due to unknown personal reasons — the challenge for Unseld and the Wizards is to make the most of the team’s complicated roster.

“[Hachimura] adds another layer to our depth. I’ve talked about it being a good problem to have,” Unseld said Sunday after Hachimura made his season debut. “It’s going to be difficult, at times, to manage.”

Unseld said before the season — and maintains now — that his ideal rotation is nine to 10 players.

“We’ll have to narrow it down. You can’t play 12 guys,” he said.

Hachimura, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward, is best suited to play the 4 — the position Kyle Kuzma starts at for Washington, which got back to .500 with a 102-100 win over Orlando on Sunday. However, one aspect of Unseld’s schemes that could ease the transition, according to Beal, is the amount of “positionless basketball” the Wizards play. That style has taken over the NBA as team’s choose athletic shooters who can defend at multiple positions over hulking big men who sit in the paint. Hachimura has the ability to drive, shoot 3s and defend almost every position.

“We can play small, we can play big,” Beal said. “We play very free and very open. … We still haven’t had our full team. It’ll be an adjustment and a learning experience.”

Unseld doesn’t yet know how he will deploy his full roster. In fact, later this month may be the first time he’s had to grapple with it all season. Forward Davis Bertans, who has missed 13 games this season, also returned to the lineup Sunday. Sixth-man Montrezl Harrell is expected to return from the COVID-19 list for the team’s game Wednesday. And center Thomas Bryant, who has been mostly a starter during his three seasons in Washington, is making his way back from ACL surgery.

Aside from Beal and possibly Kuzma, who has emerged in the last month as the Wizards’ No. 2 scorer, every player’s minutes could fluctuate in the coming weeks as Unseld figures out the rotation. For example, forward Deni Avdija, the team’s first-round pick in 2020 who may be the team’s best overall defender, was averaging about 30 minutes over the team’s last 10 games but played a season-low 12 minutes with Hachimura back on Sunday. Backup point guard Aaron Holiday (16 minutes per game) was a healthy scratch, and Bertans, the team’s third-highest paid player, was on the floor for only 10 minutes.

Unseld’s has dozens of options. He could play smaller lineups without centers Daniel Gafford and Harrell or he could have rotations with Beal at point guard — a spot he excelled at while starter Spencer Dinwiddie was on the COVID-19 list — to free up space.

“To say I know exactly how [Hachimura] fits this new roster, I’d be lying to you,” Unseld said. “Trying to figure out how to use guys and where they want to be and where to get them shots…I think it is going to take a bit of time.”

Hachimura was drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 2019 draft and averaged 13.5 points per game as a rookie for the Wizards. Last season, he improved his shooting percentages and scored 13.8 per game in 31.5 minutes per game.

After Washington was bounced from the playoffs last year, the 23-year-old then played for Japan in the Tokyo Summer Olympics in the summer before missing Wizards training camp and first few weeks of the season. He then made his way back in the facility and slowly ramped up, first learning the system, then working out, then practicing.

While Hachimura told reporters after the game Sunday that he didn’t want to get into specifics about the personal reasons that caused his absence were, he did hint at being burnt out.

“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 13. It was nonstop. In Japan, we don’t have a season. We play basketball all year,” said Hachimura, who hadn’t played since early August when Japan was eliminated from the Olympics.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Hachimura added. “I had to take a little time off, but I’m so happy to be back on the court and play with these guys. I missed this feeling.”

Hachimura scored six points on 2-of-8 shooting with three rebounds in 14 minutes. As a starter each of the last two seasons, Sunday’s game was his first coming off the bench. With Kuzma’s emergence, it’s likely that Hachimura’s role will be as a valuable bench piece, similar to Harrell.

“I know what he’s capable of, and I know he’s a special talent for us,” Beal said. “We’re happy we’ve got him back.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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