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Gonzaga Basketball

‘I’m just trying to find a spot here’: Former Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura adjusts to life as a Los Angeles Laker

While he’s relishing his chance to play in Los Angeles, Rui Hachimura still regards his time at Gonzaga as his “favorite years.”  (Getty Images)
By Stephen Hunt For The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – Being traded is a first for Rui Hachimura in his NBA career, so it’s understandable the ex-Gonzaga star is still trying to find a sustained role with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers acquired Hachimura on Jan. 23 from the Washington Wizards, who had selected him ninth overall in the 2019 NBA draft.

In 15 games with Los Angeles, Hachimura, 25, is averaging 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. After coming off the bench in his first two games after the trade, he started eight straight games between Jan. 30 and Feb. 13 before returning to the second unit for the Lakers the past five games.

“I think it’s been great. It was the first time I got traded, so it’s been a little different,” Hachimura said after the Lakers overcame a 27-point deficit to win in Dallas on Sunday, the biggest comeback in the NBA this season. “We got new guys and have more guys now. We’ve started winning, so it’s pretty good. I’m just trying to find a spot here.”

For first-year Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, finding a role for Hachimura and several other players acquired prior to the NBA trade deadline has been part of a challenging season for one of the NBA’s flagship brands.

“It’s definitely a work in progress. I think coming in with that second unit, he’s allowed to be featured a little bit more,” Ham said of Hachimura. “He’s able to score at all three levels. Just allowing him to play, not trying to put him in a box. I want him to just score. I want him to get rebounds and take challenges mentally.”

The move from Washington, the only NBA city he’d known, to Los Angeles, a new environment, was jarring at first. The ex-Zag left behind a familiar group of teammates and coaches in the nation’s capital to come to a franchise held to a higher standard than almost all others in the NBA and one headlined by maybe the league’s most popular player in LeBron James.

One teammate he left behind was fellow Bulldog Corey Kispert, one of Hachimura’s closest friends. The GU products had been teammates since 2021 when Washington drafted Kispert in the first round. It’s understandable that he and Hachimura, a 2020 member of the NBA All-Rookie second team, quickly forged a strong bond.

“Yeah, it’s just how the NBA works. It’s a business here,” Hachimura said. “We (players) are always coming in and out. My game is going to fit in somewhere with some team, I don’t know. It’s just how this world works. But it was a great two years with him (Kispert). Spent a lot of time with him. Hope for the best for him.”

About 10 days after the Lakers acquired him, Hachimura was part of NBA history when he started the Feb. 7 game against Oklahoma City at Arena, L.A.’s home floor. Die-hard fans know that was when James scored his 33,388th point of his career, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the league’s all-time scoring leader.

It was a record which Abdul-Jabbar had held since 1984, the height of the Lakers’ “Showtime” era of Magic Johnson and head coach Pat Riley.

“It was good,” Hachimura said of being part of such a landmark NBA moment. “Being part of it, it was cool to be around him. One of my good memories in basketball.”

Even though Ham has struggled to find the ideal role for Hachimura, one in which the first-year NBA head coach can put him in the best position to help the Lakers, he still sees plenty to like in the young talent. Ham knows it’s only a matter of time before Hachimura is fully integrated into his new surroundings and begins to shine on a consistent basis.

Hachimura’s prospects for more consistent minutes and a clearly defined role received a boost when the Lakers announced James would miss several weeks with a foot injury sustained in the comeback win against Dallas. Hachimura is one of several players expected to step forward to help fill the sizable void left by James’ absence.

Ham knows he is up to the challenge.

“You see a young kid who is really trying to cement and create a staple for himself in this league. He’s embraced and tried to do everything we’ve asked of him,” Ham said. “There’s so many layers to him, he’s going to get so much better in different areas. He’s still on an incline, but so far, so good. He’s been great. His versatility to play big or play small, it’s been great.”

Long before Hachimura became a Laker, he had a solid three-year stay with the Zags between 2016 and 2019.

Bulldogs fans remember his junior year when he led the team by averaging 19.7 points per game while adding 6.5 rebounds, a season in which he was named 2019 West Coast Conference Player of the Year, first-team All-WCC for the second straight season and won the Julius Erving Award as the nation’s top small forward.

His time at Gonzaga remains some of the fondest memories he’s experienced in the game.

“It was fun. Life was simple,” Hachimura said. “Those three years were my favorite years. I miss it. I miss the guys, the staff, everybody.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.