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Gonzaga Basketball

Lakers surge comes with former Gonzaga standout Rui Hachimura comfortable in starting lineup

Los Angeles forward Rui Hachimura (28) goes to the basket against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum last week.   (Tribune News Service)
By Dan Woike Tribune News Service

Rui Hachimura and the Lakers had just wrapped a 5-1 road trip as he stood by his locker near the door.

Being back inside the Wizards building felt a little weird to Hachimura, his first game back in Washington after the Lakers acquired him last year at the trade deadline in a move that’s run parallel to long stretches of winning basketball.

As he talked about the ways he’s grown as a pro since leaving the Wizards, he mentioned two of his teammates, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. These “big guys,” he said, “it’s a different game. But I’m used to it.”

“Used to it?” Davis parroted from across the room. Hachimura, the former Gonzaga star, laughed and shook his head before continuing on.

The joke wasn’t totally clear, other than Davis playfully hijacking Hachimura’s interview. But the undertone, that the Lakers and the Japanese star were comfortable, used to one another, was fully on display.

Hachimura, still just 26, is in the middle of his best stretch of pro basketball. He’s become an efficiency monster playing off the Lakers’ top offense options. On the six-game trip, his defense and rebounding ticked up.

Since moving into the starting lineup for good on Feb. 3, Hachimura’s made 59% from the field and 45% from 3-point range.

“You can see, like on offense, I can cut to the rim, I can get wide-open threes,” he said after the Lakers beat the Wizards 125-120 — a game in which Hachimura had 19 points and seven rebounds. “And defensively, we’re all switching. It’s easy. We’re very physical, can get rebounds and all that. So I think it’s good. We just have to keep building this.”

The building to this might have taken longer than people, including Hachimura, wanted.

He began the season coming off the bench, his rhythm disrupted by three different multi-game absences due to injury. Lakers coach Darvin Ham experimented with different lineup combinations, with Hachimura’s minutes a regular casualty.

Asked generally about Hachimura before Thursday’s game, Ham offered some reasons as to why the Lakers didn’t just automatically hand him the keys to a starting role.

“Just him trying to focus on the small things. Constantly on him about his awareness and activity defensively. Just his communication, him being in the right spot early. He’s been drawing some tough individual matchups. And it’s kind of like when that guy doesn’t have the ball it’s like, ‘Whew, I can relax,’” Ham said. “It’s not like that. It takes all five to get a stop. And after you do your job on the ball, that ball gets swung. Now you’ve got to get in position to help and support your teammates who supported you earlier in the possession. Just him doing the little things. Sprinting back in transition guarding his guy, once he’s done guarding his guy, his activity and alertness and awareness on the weakside of the defense.”

Hachimura’s insertion into the Lakers’ starting line has primarily kick-started their offense, pushing the team to the top of the West in terms of efficiency (and second only to Boston in the league as a whole).

“[It’s] just what we wanted,” Hachimura said. “Last year in the playoffs, core guys came back. And there were a lot of injuries and lineup changes and all that, we were in different places the first 30 games. But we’ve kind of picked it up in the second half of the season and building again. And I think we’re playing for each other, we trust each other and I think it’s been great.”

The Lakers, in the most important moments of their season, have seemingly found what works for them — and it’s lineups with Hachimura on the floor playing off their best players.

“I told you guys early on when we were struggling, it’s hard to have any chemistry, any camaraderie or that type of [rhythm] on the floor when you’re changing lineups and guys are in and out of lineups,” James said Wednesday. “Guys are hurt. Guys are in different starting lineups, different rotations. The best thing lately is that we’ve had pretty much the same starting lineup.

“That helps because you get a good rhythm, you get a good chemistry with the group that you know you’re going to be playing with so you know what you want to get to and run offensively and defensively. So, I think that has a lot to do with our success.”