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Sports >  NBA

With Rui Hachimura, Wizards taking a ‘slow and steady’ approach

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 14, 2021

Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura shoots during a playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers last season. Hachimura arrived in Washington this week after an excused absence due to “personal reasons.”  (Associated Press)
Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura shoots during a playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers last season. Hachimura arrived in Washington this week after an excused absence due to “personal reasons.” (Associated Press)
By Ava Wallace Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Washington Wizards will probably be one significant player short of a full roster when they open their season at Toronto on Wednesday.

Although Rui Hachimura arrived in the District of Columbia this week after an extended, excused absence due to personal reasons, coach Wes Unseld Jr. said Thursday that he has “no timetable” for Hachimura’s full return to the court.

Unseld said the third-year forward has another few days before he’ll have completed the NBA’s routine health and safety protocols, which include steps such as getting a serology/antibody test, before he can join the team for practice. Hachimura will begin with individual workouts and ramp up responsibilities incrementally after he meets the league’s requirements and the team assesses his physical condition.

Asked Thursday if he envisions the former Gonzaga standout back fully in a couple of weeks or multiple weeks, Unseld declined to put any sort of deadline on his return.

“I have no timetable, to be honest with you,” Unseld said. “I think it’ll play itself out. We’re going to be patient, to an extent. But when he’s ready, we’ll be ready.”

The team has been in what Unseld describes as “constant” communication with Hachimura, messages Unseld indicates have been primarily messages of support. Those conversations will soon turn to basketball, with Washington’s coaching staff already having prepared video clips they’ll send when Hachimura is ready.

But managing his return will be a delicate balance and Unseld is wary of throwing too much at the 23-year-old too soon despite the forward’s previous experience in the league.

Washington drafted Hachimura with the ninth overall pick in 2019. He has started every game he’s played, but this season he’ll have a new coaching staff and many new teammates to grow accustomed to as well as new schemes to learn on offense and defense.

Unseld’s approach has centered on diligence and patience, even with his players who arrived over Labor Day. Earlier this week the coach said the Wizards have only made it through “a small fraction” of his offensive playbook because he would rather the team gain total mastery of one thing at a time rather than be merely sufficient across a wide swath of areas.

With Hachimura, Unseld will be at the beginning of that process.

“The most important thing is we have to be slow and steady. Be consistent,” Unseld said. “I think we try that approach with all our guys, not throwing too much at them so they don’t become overwhelmed. Let’s get clarity with what we’re looking to get, how we want to play, what do we want to achieve. And then once we feel that the base is there, we can gradually build and add to his plate. But I think it’s going to be too much for anybody to miss this much time and just throw them out there and think they’re going to have success.”

The tricky part for Unseld begins after Hachimura is up to speed.

The Wizards have an abundance of options at his position, including current starting power forward Kyle Kuzma, rookie Corey Kispert from Gonzaga, Davis Bertans and other, slightly smaller wings such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Deni Avdija to consider when crafting lineups.

The key for the new coach is to find the balance between embracing Washington’s flexibility without overthinking his rotations.

“That’s the problem,” Unseld said this week . “Because of that, you do have the flexibility – that’s great. You have the versatility to play guys in multiple positions, but it does become like a matrix. How do we get the best out of each guy, putting them in the best position to have success? Sometimes it gets a little murky. And a lot of that’s just from game to game, and you’ll see those guys as the season goes, they’ll find a rhythm with the group that they’re with.”

Hachimura was the team’s third-leading scorer last season, averaging 13.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

He shouldered weighty responsibility over the summer serving as a flag bearer for Team Japan at the Tokyo Olympics as he led the men’s basketball team in its first appearance in the Summer Games since 1976.

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