WASHINGTON – The novelty of firsts will soon wear off. Game days will come with unceasing frequency and Rui Hachimura’s inaugural season with the Washington Wizards will become routine.
Still, the rookie selected ninth overall in this summer’s NBA draft made his exhibition opener Monday night appear like one of many highlights coming in his 2019-20 season reel.
Before the Wizards’ 104-99 loss to the New York Knicks, Hachimura described almost everything as exciting, from his first morning shoot-around to his start at power forward. The more fitting adjective for the night, however, might have been comfortable. That summed up the way Hachimura handled his first action in front of the most loyal of fans, who eschewed playoff baseball in the city to watch a preseason basketball game.
Inside Capital One Arena, where a smattering of 9,420 ticket holders evaluated the new-look Wizards, Hachimura played 21 minutes, judiciously took his shots and still finished with 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting. Hachimura also assisted on two makes, grabbed four rebounds and appeared steady while matching up against the athletic Julius Randle and combustible Marcus Morris.
“The guy, the weirdest thing, he’s like a wise veteran already,” coach Scott Brooks said of the 21-year-old Hachimura. “He just plays with a real calm influence.
“It’s great to see. You don’t see a lot of young players play this way.”
Unlike most rookies, Hachimura has the additional pressure of playing as the first Japanese-born first-round NBA draft pick. Throughout this season, Hachimura will be followed and documented like a global sports icon. Before the game, as Hachimura sat with player development coach David Adkins, reviewing notes and watching video clips on a laptop, three cameramen on the baseline zoomed in on his lesson.
Hachimura never noticed the extra attention – he hasn’t all training camp when as many as 10 Japanese media outlets have attended practices. By game time, on a court he had never played on before, Hachimura looked like the player Washington grew interested in through his three years at Gonzaga and the one who has fit in with Wizards teammates since returning from the FIBA World Cup.
“I was comfortable because we’ve practiced for almost two weeks, three weeks now,” Hachimura said. “I just played like that, the way we’ve been playing. Yeah, it was great.”
Hachimura hit a pullup jumper over Randle for his first basket. Then, before 4 minutes had passed in the opening quarter, he lured Randle into his second foul.
But Hachimura waited before expanding his game beyond midrange looks and drives to the rim. When presented with his first deep look, Hachimura, who attempted only 76 3-pointers in college, dribbled out of the right corner. Later in the third quarter, Hachimura had another corner 3 but made a split decision to pass while still in the air.
His 3-point timidity notwithstanding – Hachimura attempted one deep look and swished it – Hachimura looked far more relaxed than Knicks rookie R.J. Barrett, the third overall draft pick in this year’s class.
While Hachimura’s big moment happened as he attacked from the perimeter and threw down a left-handed dunk in the third quarter, Barrett (17 points) settled in late in the second half and played a game-high 39 minutes. Barrett started the game 1 for 6 but finished with a respectable 6-of-13 shooting line.
“He’s quiet for one, but he’s a workhorse,” Wizards all-star Bradley Beal said of Hachimura. “He’s all about getting better. He’s all about hooping and just playing basketball. That’s all he wants to do. I actually like his demeanor. He’s not too high, he’s not too low. He’s very even keel and he just goes out there and hoops at the end of the day.”
No Wizard played more than 28 minutes, and Brooks limited Beal to 16 minutes. When the teams returned from halftime, Beal’s work was done. He was busy holding his 1-year-old son, Deuce, when players stepped onto the court to start the third quarter. Beal finished with five points on 2-of-10 shooting and contributed four of the team’s 26 assists.
The Wizards closed the game with a five-man lineup featuring several players on nonguaranteed deals. Phil Booth, who will likely play with the Capital City Go-Go of the G-League this season, made a runner with 9.8 seconds remaining to pull the Wizards within 101-99. Second-year center Moritz Wagner made the most of the late minutes. Wagner scored 11 through the fourth quarter and led the Wizards with 16 points.
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